Sleater-Kinney (photo by Nikko LaMere, PR)
The Center Won’t Hold
Mom + Pop Records
For 25 years, Sleater-Kinney has mixed punk defiance and acerbic, candid lyrics with a simple guitar and drum rock formula. Fiercely independent and passionately frank, Sleater-Kinney — long the trio of guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and drummer Janet Weiss, but now a duo since Weiss's cryptic departure earlier this summer — write songs that touch on feminism, politics, and very personal emotions, including those that infiltrate the core of the band.
The title of the band's new album, The Center Won’t Hold, is as mysterious as Weiss's exit. The group, formed by Tucker and Brownstein in 1994 in Olympia, Washington, has included the drummer since 1996 and the release of their third album, 1997's Dig Me Out. Sleater-Kinney's indefinite hiatus in 2006 seemed to be the end of the road, but they returned in 2015 with the excellent No Cities to Love, extensive touring, and a concert album too, Live in Paris.
For Sleater-Kinney's ninth album, The Center Won’t Hold, Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss turned to St. Vincent —the multitalented Annie Clark — for guidance. St.Vincent dug into the new songs and encouraged the band to stay true to themselves and say what they wanted to say. The trio embraced St. Vincent’s vision while she enhanced and embellished the work of a band that was an influence and inspiration to her during her formative years.
Often on this album, St. Vincent’s input is very much felt, like the use of synthesizers and electronic touches, qualities that are fresh additions to Sleater-Kinney’s musical canvas. The mechanized, metallic drift of the title track feels very Clark until, two-thirds of the way through, Sleater-Kinney’s signature power explodes outward.
There are elements of techno-pop to running through “Reach Out," as Tucker and Brownstein’s guitars are held mostly in check. “Can I Go On” is a yearning blast of post-punk pop, punctuated with jolts of ragged electric guitar.
The album takes a veiled political turn on the sinister “Ruins.” It’s a buzzing, industrial track that makes reference to a “beast we made,” and “a demon so frightening” that it will “eat the weak, devour the saved.”
Christine Blasey Ford, the university professor who testified before Congress in September 2018 that she'd been sexually assaulted by then-nominated Justice Brett Kavanaugh, is the inspiration for “Broken,” a piano ballad at the album’s end with devastating lyrics: “She, she, she stood up for us/When she testified/Me, me too/My body cried out/When she spoke those lines.”
Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss are retrospective on “LOVE,” which assesses, to jittery beats, the band’s past experiences as indie-rock heroes and the bond that formed between the trio. Which made the announcement, just two weeks before The Center Won’t Hold was released, that Weiss was quitting even more shocking. In her statement, Weiss vaguely explained that since the band was “heading in a new direction," so was she. In turn, Brownstein responded that it was "hard and sad" and that she and Tucker wanted the drummer to stay.
Perhaps it's just coincidence that The Center Won't Hold is the last album, apparently, that will feature Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss together. The group's choice to turn the production duties to Clark indicated that the band was ready for some fresh, even radical, outside ideas. As of the end of August, no announcement has been made regarding Weiss's replacement on tour. (And Weiss has had a nightmarish summer, fracturing her right leg and left collarbone in an August car accident.)
Tucker and Brownstein will no doubt lean on what they learned from their last days as a trio — and their new future as a duo, coming full circle to Sleater-Kinney's earliest days.