Album: The Center Won’t Hold
In Brief: While I’m all for hearing Sleater-Kinney attempt to reinvent the sound they’ve had for 20+ years, the pop and electronic influences on this record don’t really mesh well with the righteous anger and irreverent commentary of their old punk rock sound. This leads to some unfortunate side effects as the group’s lyrics and hooks have been simplified, the vocal interplay between the two singers has been scaled way back, and the percussion has become so well-mannered that it was apparently a rather joyless record for their now-former drummer to participate in. This isn’t a career-destroying record, but it could turn out to be a legacy-damaging one.
I probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to dig into Sleater-Kinney‘s back catalogue. I’ve been doing that with a lot of bands this year, actually, as I’ve prepared to sum up my favorite records of the past decade and realized that for some of the artists I was considering for that list, I only really knew one or two recent albums. I first got into the kick-ass all female punk/rock trio with their 2015 release, No Cities to Love, which was their comeback after having been broken up for nearly a decade. It wasn’t at all the type of thing I expected to be my style, since punk isn’t a genre I tend to be huge on most of the time, but that record was downright infectious. At some point after news broke that they were working on a follow-up for 2019. I realized I needed to hear what the band was like in their heyday, so I started going through their discography and finding myself surprised at how much of it I liked almost instantly – especially their early 2000’s material from All Hands on the Bad One up through the eerily dark and experimental The Woods. All this from a band that took a few tries to really grow on me due to the presence of two fiery, unconventional, and sometimes downright abrasive vocalists who only incorporated conventional pop influences into their music insofar as they could bend those influences to their will. Once I became accustomed to the attention-demanding voices of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and the jagged, gnarled guitar riffs and runs that could often accompany them, and especially once I caught up to the rest of the rock music world’s realization that Janet Weiss was one of the most badass drummers alive, it felt almost intoxicating to go back and hear them in their original heyday. They had done just enough coloring outside the lines of what could sometimes be a rigidly defined and limiting genre that I wasn’t sure what to expect from them next, but I was sure it would catch me by surprise in some way.
Then came the early singles from their 2019 project, The Center Won’t Hold. I honestly didn’t connect with any of them at first, but then I figured, the songs on No Cities to Love that packed the biggest wallop didn’t hit me right away either, so maybe I’d give it time. They had called upon St. Vincent – a formidable guitar-slinging indie artist in her own right – to produce the new record, and the idea of that collaboration seemed exotic and exciting at first, since I had enjoyed 2017’s MASSEDUCTION more than anything St. Vincent had done in the past, and I was curious as to how her more electronic and eccentric tendencies would mesh with Sleater-Kinney’s deliberately messy and cathartic aural assault. It turned out that the answer was… a real mixed bag. There are times when I can hear the trippy (and sometimes trip-hoppy) tendencies of the former creeping into the economical “two guitars, a drum kit, and zero nonsense” arrangement of the latter and producing something fascinatingly new… but then there are far too many moments where it just seems like the four women all met in the middle and produced pleasantly bouncy, but largely forgettable indie pop with repetitive hooks and nowhere near as much lyrical bite as I’d expect from either artist. Then there are a few down-tempo tracks that are just downright boring. I don’t really even know who to blame for those, as they’re worse than the least interesting tracks I’ve heard from St. Vincent. It’s an alienating reaction to have to a Sleater-Kinney song, and while I can’t say I’m intimately familiar with all seven of their pre-breakup albums at that point, I don’t recall boredom being a common reaction of mine to even the deepest of the deep cuts on those. What exactly happened here?
What really hurt, a month or two before this album dropped, is that the band rather abruptly announced the departure of Janet Weiss. By all accounts, it seems like she made a sudden decision to leave and didn’t really put much effort into negotiating it with the rest of the band. She had kind things to say about their time together, but sounded rather indifferent about the last record that they had made, indicating that Sleater-Kinney was now headed in a direction she couldn’t see herself continuing to be a part of. Brownstein and Tucker, for their part, seemed dismayed by her decision, as I’m sure a ton of fans were, myself included. This gives me flashbacks to Darren King quitting MuteMath out of the blue in the lead-up to the release of Play Dead (though we still have no explanation whatsoever for that one – at least Weiss was nice enough to hint that it was due to creative differences and apparently nothing personal). A band simply doesn’t get over the loss of a great drummer that easily. Maybe some people will think, what’s the big deal, it’s just a person hitting percussion instruments and it’s not like she was their lead singer or guitarist. But the right drummer can turn a song from a merely perfunctory one that drags along with a standard 4/4 beat and little variation at all into a thing of monstrous momentum, and Weiss had that talent for inserting jackhammer rhythms and exciting fills into the exact right places to keep things tense and tight. Weiss still played on this record, but I’m guessing she was either replaced by a drum machine on a few tracks, was talked into using drum pads instead of the live instrument in situations where she didn’t think it was the right fit, or otherwise shackled into playing basic beats as the rest of the group got obsessed with a cleaner, “less-is-more” type of sound. She has her moments on The Center Won’t Hold, but it’s not a record you listen to and think, “Wow, what an amazing drummer”, and that’s a bummer coming right after I had finally realized what a major selling point that was for most of Sleater-Kinney’s discography. I get that she wasn’t their original drummer (she came on board for the band’s third album, Dig Me Out, in 1997), and thus not a founding member of the band. But the other two had admitted not long after she joined that she had become an integral part of their sound. To pursue a sonic change like this without a key member fully on board seems like a recipe for disaster. Even if the band manages to course correct on the next record, are they always going to have this one to remember as “That weird experimental pop thing we did with St. Vincent that forced Janet out and now we really, really wish we could have her back”? Time will tell. Personally, I don’t think their future prospects look good if they’re going to continue to de-emphasize the drums in the future like they did here, regardless of who is playing them.
What strikes me as especially odd about this record is how it tends to feel like more of a side project that happens to involve both Tucker and Brownstein than a true Sleater-Kinney album. Even the trademark back-and-forth between the two women’s vocals, a tried-and-true feature of most of their records, is downplayed here, with Browstein singing lead on most of the new sings and Tucker getting a few spotlight moments, but very little interplay between the two, as if each had been writing songs in a void without really communicating with the other. If St. Vincent was more of an influence on their sound than Weiss was, and especially if the band had already been through a breakup before, during which they all pursued other projects and Brownstein and Weiss even played together briefly in Wild Flag during that time, why did The Center Won’t Hold even need to be a Sleater-Kinney record in the first place? Why not simply pursue this as a side gig, market it as a Tucker/Brownstein/St. Vincent collaboration (or give this configuration a different band name altogether), and give Weiss the chance to sit it out without her future with the band being staked on her participation in a project she wasn’t enthused about?
But I suppose one could argue that this is enough of a Sleater-Kinney record in the sense that it stills bear some of the band’s hallmarks. Some of the lyrics might be fluff, but there are some powerful, aggressive moments here and also some surprisingly vulnerable ones, all of which fit quite well into the band’s universe of songs that are strongly pro-feminist and don’t mind making the listener uncomfortable with a strong bit of innuendo or social activism here and there. It’s just that the variance in sound from track to track, and the ease with which the band falls back on redundant chorus hooks that aren’t strong enough in the melodic department to make up for what they lack lyrically, makes this record feel more like a grab bag of random ideas than anything they’ve done in the past. This album lacks a core identity (a “center”, if you’ll forgive the obvious pun). Its intentions are undoubtedly good, in terms of trying to find new ways to throw listeners off their game despite having been a band for a quarter century, but they really should have given equal weight to the opinions of everyone in the band before proceeding. This isn’t an awful record… but every time I listen to it I’m painfully aware of the potential it had to be a much better record, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s one that the remaining two members of the band are going to look back upon regretfully when all is said and done.
1. The Center Won’t Hold
Despite all of my misgivings about how this record turns out, I have to say that the title track absolutely nailed it. It’s weird, it’s disorienting, it’s infectious, and when all is said and done it’s just about everything I could have wanted from a Sleater-Kinney/St. Vincent collaboration. The eerie, industrial drums and smeared-out bass notes are certainly an unorthodox way for this band to kick off an album, and Carrie’s vocals are pretty eccentric, dragging out the contradictory lyrics (“I need something pretty/To help me ease my pain/I need something ugly/To put me in my place”) as if she were in a state of drugged-out euphoria. Corin is the song’s “center” as she repeats the title like a mantra, both in between Carrie’s verse lyrics and when she takes over the spotlight for the chorus. For the first half, this song is slow to get going, and then midway through it quite literally flatlines, with Corin’s voice softening to a menacing whisper. That’s when the band quite suddenly hits us with the good stuff, as the live drums and heavy guitars (and piano? I think that might be a first a first for this band) come roaring in, and Corin starts wailing away with the passionate urgency we’ve come to expect from her. The restraint of the first part makes the second part a huge payoff, and this turns out to be a hell of an album opener that would also likely be a hell of a crowd-pleaser in concert. If more of the album had manage to combine strange setups with satisfying payoffs like this one, I’d have come away with a much more positive impression of the band’s new sound overall.
2. Hurry On Home
The first single from the album gave me a massive case of “I don’t know how to feel”. There are moments throughout when I can hear the band’s indelible fingerprints and it makes me smile – Corin’s vibrato as the opening hook, some signature Carrie Brownstein guitar licks, the dirty rhythm guitar and irreverent attitude of the whole thing. But I’m indifferent about the tempo of it, which seems to mild-mannered for a song that’s trying to push the listener’s buttons. There’s an interesting mix of live drums and metallic clangs, again giving the percussion a hint of an industrial sound, but it never really develops into anything confrontational enough to fit the mood of the song. And the lyrics are a huge mixed bag. I can’t tell if the band is going for empowerment, self-deprecation, or social commentary when Carrie half-speaks and half-sings, portraying herself as a lethargic layabout whose only purpose in life is to beckon her lover to come home to her, with the strong implication that the only thing on her mind is sex, even though she’s deliberately describing herself as unappealing: “You know I’m unfuckable, unlovable, unlistenable, unwatchable.” I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some of these lyrics were lifted directly from awful things people have said about her in the comments of YouTube videos, but if they’re trying to repurpose the insults in some way, I’m not sure I’m getting the message. Once the song launches into its bridge, which finds Carrie breathlessly repeating, “You’ve got me used to loving you”, the song seems to be about a relationship based around complacency, where sexual gratification is simply an expected service rather than a shared joy. This may be deliberate commentary on how familiarity and sheer laziness can cause us to sometimes stay in relationships that have long since ceased to be fruitful. But not being sure whether they’re making a serious statement with this one, or just going for subversive slacker humor, makes it rather hard for to me to care one way or the other.
3. Reach Out
This mid-tempo track feels like a really awkward mix between half-hearted synthpop and a semi-serious attempt at a power ballad. I can certainly try to keep an open mind when I hear Corin Tucker singing over synthesizers in the verse, but when this resolves to a rather repetitive chorus with a go-nowhere melody, and very generic lyrics about needing human contact to keep her from going over the edge into the cold void of depression, I find myself tuning out not because it’s different or because it’s dark, but because it’s dull. A guitar solo in the bridge is probably the song’s lone saving grace, because nothing about the production style, the lackluster percussion, or a criminally underwhelming lead vocal performance from a normally fiery lead singer manages to keep my attention. Not to be insensitive to whatever she was going through when she wrote this… she’s just addressing it in surprisingly broad and cliched terms. About the only lyric that grabs my attention here is at the end of the second verse: “My body is my own again.” But it requires hearing another song to really understand why that line matters. Only three tracks in and we’ve already arrived at a skip-worthy bit of filler.
4. Can I Go On
This is the main song that comes to mind when I describe parts of this record as surprisingly bouncy. It’s not inherently a bad thing. What’s weird is this isn’t even that fast-paced or edgy of a song, but it definitely leans more toward “power pop” than anything else in their discography that I can recall, largely due to the simple but catchy guitar riffs and the heavy use of group vocals. the group sounds like they’re having a lot of fun singing this one, even if the lyrics are apathetic as all hell. “Everyone I know is tired/But everyone I know is wired/To machines, it’s obscene/I’ll just scream ’til it don’t hurt no more.” Pretty standard complaint about how those tiny rectangular screens have all but taken over our lives, but in a way it’s consistent with some themes from the last record about how the band returned to the scene after being gone for a while and sort of started to question their own relevance in a much faster-paced world that consumes and spits out its musical icons at an alarming pace. Carrie muddies the waters just enough here, with her grittier guitar style and her slightly raspy vocals, to make it work as a Sleater-Kinney song, I think. This would still be a shock to the system if placed side-by-side with No Cities to Love, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. As singles go, this is definitely one of the band’s more engaging and immediately accessible ones.
“My heart wants the ugliest” things, Carrie sings on this utterly nondescript ballad. She sounds incredibly bummed about having let down someone she loves. There really isn’t a whole lot to the song other than her admitting she drove off rather impulsively because of some inner self-destructive nature (“My heart wants the ugliest things”, as the chorus puts it), and now sees the damage that did to a relationship. Good enough observation, I guess, but her delivery makes her sound entirely disengaged from the subject – even when she grunts that “You and I, we don’t fuck around” in the first verse, it’s just about the most bland and wasteful deployment of the f-bomb in a song lyric that I can think of. The guitars have no bite to them here, the drums are on auto-pilot, the melody sputters out before achieving anything close to a hook… what was even the point of this song? On what is already a rather Carrie Brownstein-heavy, I find it hard to believe that they absolutely needed to make room for this lifeless sigh of a song instead of giving Corin Tucker a little more airtime.
Since Sleater-Kinney tends to keep most of their songs on the short and sassy side of things, this long, drawn-out slow-burner seems to take up a lot of space at the center of this album. On paper, it sounds like a fantastic idea – a menacing chant in which the band threatens to mow down cities, motivated by nothing but pure greed, mixed with a fair amount of patented St. Vincent creepiness. (Seriously, I think there’s a theremin in there somewhere. Corin’s also doing her best “spooky haunted house” voice near the end. These are all interesting things.) Unfortunately, the song threatens to collapse under its own weight, due to the sparse, robotic drumming and its absolute refusal to change up its pace or its intensity level. No matter how grimy the synths and guitars might sound, or how much they might lay on the vocal theatrics near the end, there’s nothing happening to ratchet up the tension, which means the track loses its ability to startle the listener once they’ve taken the first two or three minutes to adjust to the eerie vibe it starts out with. This track feels like it should gradually morph into the aural equivalent of Godzilla, smashing buildings and eating puny, weak humans as the lyrics suggest. Instead it’s a docile sheep, merely chewing the scenery at an unhurried pace.
I have no idea why the titles of these two songs, and only these two songs are capitalized. The two contrast each other in pretty much every way, as this is is an up-tempo song with a strong whiff of new wave influence, the closest Sleater-Kinney gets to unabashedly having fun with both the music and lyrics. Most of Carrie’s verses revisit memorable moments in the band’s history (with the line “Call the doctor, dig me out of this mess” name-checking two of their earliest albums), and even though it’s clear that they’ve faced a lot of long, hard days on the road and moments of uncertainty about where to go next, they’ve always loved fighting that fight together as a team. The only word Corin contributes here, is “Love”, drawn out in her one-of-a-kind vibrato, and sung over and over in what would be an incredibly inane chorus if not for the verses that serve to tee it up. There’s a deliberate air of wanting to mimic a more simplistic style of music here, because they didn’t want to overthink it or sound too pretentious (or maybe they just wanted to piss off purist critics who have been leveling accusations of them not being “punk” enough ever since the late 90s?) So this is one moment where I don’t mind the more basic approach. The final verse – which seems bittersweet now that we know the band is down to two members – seems to hint at what they expect their future to hold: “Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end/But fighting is the fuel and anger is a friend/There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene/Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen.” (And then they throw another “Fuck!” in there, for no apparent reason, but on an album where I’m not hearing as much interplay between Carrie and Corin’s vocals as I like, I have to admit it’s amusing how that collides with the chorus and makes it sound like they’re singing, “Fuck love.”) References to the body in a few of these songs seem like they’re meant to be connected. We’ll circle back to that idea soon.
8. Bad Dance
Sleater-Kinney may have gotten their start as a garage band, but this noisy, syncopated romp has a very specific garage band sound to it, reminding me of some of those swaggery bands with “The” in their names that hit it big in the early 2000s. It’s actually quite a fun change of pace, and it fits the swaggery, hedonistic lyrics about realizing the world is ending and we might as well all just engage in one last big orgy before the world burns to a crisp. These lyrics seem to come from the same sort of universe as Billie Eilish‘s “Bad Guy”, where the listener knows full well that the singer’s villainous tone isn’t meant to be taken seriously, and that gives Carrie some leeway for otherwise cringeworthy lyrics in the second verse: “Come over here and show me that you crave a little more/Let me defang you and defile you on the floor/Well, I’m indulgent, I’m impulsive, I’m profane/Doesn’t matter how long you last, ’cause I have rigged the game.” This is the rare song on this album where the band seems to fully embrace their messiness, and I cannot tell you how much I have missed that! The guitars squeak and squeal all over the place, the drums sound a lot more rambunctious (though buried behind a layer of distortion), and everyone’s playing up the campy mood of the song and feeling zero need to apologize for it.
9. The Future Is Here
Lord help us, Corin’s gone synthpop again. This one actually commits to the change-up a little better than “Reach Out” did, so as weird as it might be to hear her half-heartedly muttering about starting and ending her day on a tiny screen (yep, we’re complaining about everyone’s obsession with technology again!), there is a sense of very real catharsis to it when she cries out “Never felt so goddamned lost and alone!” in the lead-up to the chorus. As much as the song may try to play it cool with its mellow, humming synths and its precise, shuffling beat, it’s obvious that it was written from a rather dark place, not just out of frustration with modern technology, but out of despair upon remembering that it can’t replace genuine human contact when someone you loved is no longer there in the sheets with you, or there to greet you when you come home at night. I can understand her pain here. What I can’t understand is the band’s decision to take an otherwise promising chorus melody and bunt on it when the second half of that chorus devolves into a long and unnecessary series of “Na na na”s. If they’re trying to subversively mock vapid pop music in some way, I’m not seeing it – they’re in danger of becoming the very thing they’re shining a big, glaring light on here. The word “fangless” comes to mind here.
10. The Dog / The Body
Is that actual bass I’m hearing at the beginning of this song, or just low notes on a guitar? Sleater-Kinney has often foregone bass entirely, which would make this another subtle change to their sound if I’m hearing what I think I am. regardless, this is another one of those mid-tempo songs with fairly subdued verses, though it comes to life in another power pop chorus, with both vocalists singing a hell of a lot of “Baby, baby, baby”s in unison. I almost feel like they’re going for the whole upbeat music, downbeat lyrics approach that has worked for seminal power pop acts like The New Pornographers, but they don’t quite have the knack for strong melodies or instrumental diversity that some of those bands do, so the result falls a bit flat. I feel like Carrie is trying to negotiate her way out of a dull relationship with this one, since she’s describing herself as a shell of a person with no fight or passion left in her, and saying it’s perfectly alright with her if her baby leaves and never comes back. It’s a sad sentiment, but I also get that nobody wants to be treated as a prop or a mere source of physical pleasure. that’s not how relationships are supposed to work. This is the third song to suggest a direct link between a person’s body, and their independence and well being, so even if I don’t find the song that interesting, I think it sets us up nicely for the album’s incredibly somber finale.
In a million years, I never would have expected Sleater-Kinney to close a song with a piano ballad. This one’s all Corin, by herself at the piano, with no drums and only the slightest bit of electric guitar as an accent here and there. While it’s far enough removed from the band’s usual sound to seem more like something that would belong on a Corin Tucker solo record, the point she’s trying to make here fits pretty squarely with the band’s firm feminist stance and especially with the “body” theme I’ve noted that runs throughout a few of the earlier tracks. We find Corin trying her damndest not to fall apart when faced with a situation that is utterly devastating to her emotions. She doesn’t want to break down and cry in front of people, so she’s trying to put her brave face on, but she’s watching others go through the same experiences she’s had before and it’s bringing back a ton of awful feelings that she doesn’t want to revisit. “My body cried out when she spoke those lines”, she laments in one of the song’s most hard-hitting lyrics. Reading between the lines, it’s pretty easy to figure out that this is a reference to the #MeToo movement and how a lot of women (and some men) have come forward and accused powerful male figures of sexual harassment and outright abuse. And some of them have gotten absolutely eviscerated in the court of public opinion for their trouble, particularly Christine Blasey Ford, who brought forth allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in the lead-up to his confirmation around this time last year. Corin feels solidarity with her, valuing her brave decision to stand up on behalf of other victims for whom it might be too difficult to face. But having to relive her own memories as this case dominated the news cycle must have been a hard pill to swallow, especially when it turned out to not be taken seriously by a Republican-controlled Senate, meaning this woman’s alleged attacker would now be in a position to shape the future of women’s rights in this country. I remember being pretty pissed off and depressed about it that weekend, when after all that effort to demonstrate that this was not a reasonable person who had owned up to his past (or for that matter, could remain reasonable and unbiased when confronted with it in the present), he still got confirmed. So I can’t imagine how devastating that must have felt for Corin, and I’m glad she was bold enough to write a song about it. While the decision to strip away all expected elements of the band’s sound and go it alone for this one presumably got a mixed response from fans, I actually think that after 20+ years of getting the audience’s attention by being deliberately loud and pissed off about these exact same issues, the way to get our attention now is to completely pull the rug out from under our expectations and do something musically low-key but gut-wrenchingly vulnerable. Corin is up to the task despite being well outside of what we might expect to be her musical comfort zone here. It’s a hard song to listen to at times, but it’s one we definitely needed to hear.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Center Won’t Hold $1.75
Hurry on Home $.50
Reach Out $.25
Can I Go On $1.25
Bad Dance $1.25
The Future Is Here $.75
The Dog / The Body $.50
Carrie Brownstein: Vocals, guitars
Corin Tucker: Vocals, guitars
Janet Weiss: Drums, percussion, backing vocals (no longer with the band)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: