Album of the Day: Sleater-Kinney, “The Center Won’t Hold”

To talk about Sleater-Kinney is, inevitably, to talk about history. Not only are they are a band with 25 years of it themselves, they’re also inextricably linked to the riot grrrl movement of the late ‘90s; their list of followers includes everyone from Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail to Spoon’s Britt Daniel. The Center Won’t Hold, their ninth album, and second since their 2014 reunion, opens a new chapter in that history. Last month, Janet Weiss, the extraordinary drummer who has been a member of Sleater-Kinney since their third album Dig Me Out, announced she was leaving the group. “The band is heading in a new direction,” Weiss said, in a letter she posted on Instagram. “[It] is time for me to move on.”

As it always does, internet speculation about her departure followed soon after—some of which centered around the idea that the presence of St. Vincent’s Annie Clark in the producer’s chair somehow minimized Weiss’s presence on the album. Remaining members Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein took great pains to set the record straight. In a recent profile in The Guardian, Brownstein and Tucker say they’re not really sure why Weiss left—and that working with Clark was her idea. Brownstein said she thought “everyone was really happy about the record.”

The conversations about Weiss’s departure are, in their own way, also conversations about history: the way the band looked and sounded 20 years ago vs. the way they look and sound today. But sonic innovation has always been a part of Sleater-Kinney’s past, and The Center Won’t Hold has the same electricity as The Woods or The Hot Rock. “Hurry On Home” meshes their riffs-forward approach with the urgent alt-pop of St. Vincent’s 2017 album MASSEDUCTION, and gives them a space to explore Heart-like soul, a texture that bleeds throughout the record. The apocalyptic title track, with its harrowing, industrial rhythm, plunges the group in waves of digital distortion; album standout “Reach Out” crests in a gorgeous chorus buoyed by high-arcing vocal harmonies. Sleater-Kinney’s signature guitar harmonics feature prominently on “Restless,” and they tinker with taut staccato-style playing on “LOVE,” a song that documents the band’s history and works sly references to previous albums into its lyrics. And while the vast range of sonics on Center might land just outside of the group’s usual punk-rock paradigm, it’s true to their overall approach—refining and redefining who they are with each new record. One thing that hasn’t changed is the group’s pointed cultural critiques, which, on Center, are as deft as usual. “The Future Is Here” and “Can I Go On” lament the inhumanity of the digital age and the distressing realities that have become day-to-day life.

In that way, Center feels squarely in conversation with S-K’s similarly-themed 2002 album, One Beat. On that record’s “Far Away,” Tucker reflects on the Iraq war, singing about breast-feeding her newborn son while watching the news in post-9/11 America. On Center, modern-day patriarchal nightmares—from Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh to Harvey Weinstein and the American President—come to the fore; on the muted album closer “Broken,” Tucker addresses them directly. Just as she did in “Far Away,” Tucker again watches TV on “Broken”—this time, it’s the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford on screen. “She stood up for us when she testified,” Tucker sings. “My body cried out when she spoke those lines.” The song is the culmination of the body politics and cultural critique at the core of Center; but its somber tone makes it play like a summation of the battles S-K have been waging for the last 25 years.

-Claire Lobenfeld

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