Sleater-Kinney made a great album (Call the Doctor) before drummer Janet Weiss came on board and it’s likely that they could make several more, despite her announced departure in July. Yet losing one of their most undeniable assets just before an album release was a worrying sign, especially given Weiss’ stated reason for leaving: “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.”
It left us fans to ponder: to what extremes had the band departed, so that a crucial member felt the need to leave? There were clues in the first single to be released, “Hurry on Home”, a midtempo rock song with rather static drumming and none of the usual Sleater-Kinney musical touches. And of course there was a major clue in the announced producer of the album, Annie Clark of St. Vincent, an iconoclastic performer herself with a distinct sonic identity. It was not difficult to believe that the force of Clark’s personality might’ve pulled the band in a completely different direction from anything they’d previously done, and what’s more we could hear exactly that on “Hurry on Home” (nevertheless a good song, and proof that experimentation is not inherently a bad thing for a long-running band).
It was not difficult to understand why Weiss might have objected to this change of tack. St. Vincent is undeniably a very clever musician – but she’s not for everyone. Sleater-Kinney are beloved by thousands because they have always worn their hearts so furiously on their sleeves, pumping out emotionally vital music like their bloodstreams and therefore lives depended on it. St. Vincent, meanwhile, has always made frosty, reserved music; it can feel as if her heart is tucked well away beneath her sleeve, even when exploring sex and romance as on MASSEDUCTION, as if any gestures at emotion in her music are being refracted through shards of glass. It’s not enough to observe that these are very different artists; in fact, they can be viewed as opposite ends of the spectrum of emotional intensity in music.
Yet the album’s title, The Center Won’t Hold, was intriguing. Were Sleater-Kinney and St. Vincent going to explore, and eventually shatter, the center ground between their disparate styles? Was that overt political metaphor going to play out in the music? Could Weiss, very much the center of the power trio (literally in stage shows), have been mistaken in not holding onto the band?
Responses have been varied, but to these ears the answer to all of those questions is sadly: not enough. St. Vincent succeeds too well in imposing her style upon the band and she erases the ragged edges of their individuality; industrial synths and, occasionally, programmed beats take the place of duelling guitars and Weiss’ clamorous drum rolls. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s wild harmonising, like nothing else ever heard on earth, has been replaced by solo vocals on most tracks; what’s more, these solo vocals are subdued, forlorn, and remote. Simply put, the band no longer sound like Sleater-Kinney. It’s easy to spot the change of direction that made Weiss want to leave, and you can sympathise with her decision.
Yet whilst it’s easy to point fingers at Annie Clark for the album’s failure (relative to the rest of their catalogue), the reality is more dispiriting still. The fact is that the songs here are no good, or at least not up to the Olympian standards that we have come to expect of the band. Sleater-Kinney as songwriting team brought nothing exceptional to the table, nothing that challenged the upper reaches of their talents. It seems to me that the album was doomed from the start.
It’s possible to sense why when you dig deep into the lyrics, as doom is clearly the central motif and driving force behind everything here. There’s defeatism on every one of these songs, from the “Everyone I know is tired” that leads “Can’t Go On” to the “I felt so goddamn lost and alone” that sets up the chorus on “The Future is Here”. One line in “The Dog/The Body” goes “I’m just the fist without the will to fight”, and that perfectly sums up the limp energy of the whole album. Listen to Sleater-Kinney’s earlier works, even their comeback No Cities to Love from just 4 years ago, and you’ll hear a fist ready to fly in anybody’s face at just about any time. Now there’s mostly a weary indignation and an unwillingness to enter the battleground of modern life in the technological age.
Their music has always confronted the problems of politics and relationships head-on, with realistic precision. Yet this is the first time that Sleater-Kinney have sounded like they’ve lost their animus, as if they’ve lost the ability to fight. The world is a particularly frightening place right now, there’s no doubt about it, and defeatism is tempting. Yet I can’t help but feel disappointed that Sleater-Kinney didn’t use their Christine Blasey Ford ballad that ends the album to make clear how necessary and relevant their fiery brand of feminist politics remains in today’s America. Instead, they enrol piano and unnecessarily flowery vocals from Tucker in self-conscious displays that rob it of power and militancy. You wish they could take the brave fight against the patriarchy, as Blasey Ford did herself in standing up and testifying. Yet, as the band have already made clear, their fist no longer has the will to fight.
It’s all a little too depressing in a time when we need our heroes more than ever. But there’s certainly some hope amongst the mess; the moments of frank sexual explicitness are a wonderful affirmation of middle-aged sexuality, particularly on “Hurry on Home”. There are some musical touches that perhaps would never have happened without St. Vincent’s encouragement that are exciting and a reminder that this album could’ve been as good as Le Tigre, if the writing was only better – I’m particularly fond of “Reach Out”, which uses multi-tracking and celebratory pop synths in a manner that’s reminiscent of ABBA, particularly on the anthemic chorus.
And then, best of all, there’s “The Center Won’t Hold” itself. It starts off the album with industrial clangs, as if it was recorded in a steel factory, and the slow pace maintains throughout 2 minutes of build-up and restrained singing. But then the center breaks, as promised, and the band surges forward, as powerful a beast as they’ve ever been, with yelped vocals and Weiss’ unmistakeably forceful drumming fighting to run away from each other and ultimately colliding together in a joyful melee of sound. It’s the sound of their music rushing in to take the place of a collapsed center, of righteous power overwhelming cynical defeatism, and as such it shows us the glimpse of a way forward out of our current political mess.
This bracing blast of aggression only lasts for 50 seconds. But it’s enough to give you some hope for Sleater-Kinney’s uncertain future, and our own.