How did you envision the future 25 years ago? When Corin Tucker hollered, “I’m the queen of rock ‘n’ roll!” two years into Sleater-Kinney’s tenure in 1996 the idea of a “girl band”—a label the band sarcastically threw back into its critics’ faces on All Hands On The Bad One in 2000—as titans of rock was unlikely enough to be pointedly political. Much has happened in the interim: Janet Weiss joined the band, then left just last month; Sleater-Kinney broke up, and got back together; and Tucker’s declaration has, in some ways, come to pass. (Not quite Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists” come to pass, but still.) And that’s just within the band itself. In case you haven’t heard, the world is on fire, and Sleater-Kinney’s new album The Center Won’t Hold both grapples with the heartsickness of wondering how we got here and imagines a new era where love conquers all.
In the Sleater-Kinney canon, The Center Won’t Hold most resembles One Beat; like that 2002 album, it’s a politically charged record whose hopscotching between musical styles reflects the confusion of its times. One Beat was a response to 9/11 and the early days of the George W. Bush administration, and The Center Won’t Hold similarly captures the disbelief, dread, and gut panic that gripped the trio (now duo) when Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017. The difference this time is in the presentation: Producer Annie Clark, a.k.a St. Vincent, brings a wholly new sound to the record, a sleek, sharp industrial/synth-pop hybrid that sounds like bubblegum on brushed steel and embraces screeching feedback and bubbly synthesizers alike.
Clark’s Metropolis sensibility ebbs and flows, gripping hardest on album opener “The Center Won’t Hold”—which announces its intentions with the sound of mallets clanging on metal in its opening moments—and singles “Hurry On Home” and “The Future Is Here,” which blend fuzzy guitar and industrial percussion with radio-ready keyboards and sweet vocal harmonies. These pop experiments are wisely distributed throughout the album, alternating with songs utilizing an impressively versatile array of guitar sounds—kitschy disco strumming (“Can I Go On”), frenetic punk-rock swing (“Bad Dance”), warm classic-rock swell (“The Dog/The Body”), hypnotic art-rock jams (“Ruins”), and, of course, a fist-pumping anthem or two, all underlaid with Weiss’ distinctive, pounding drumbeats. (She won’t be on the group’s fall tour, but she hasn’t been replaced with a drum machine just yet.)
Based on Sleater-Kinney’s history of political songwriting, empowerment is the feeling we expect to come rushing in when “Reach Out” builds to its rousing chorus. But listen closer, and the fragility behind those stadium-size hooks becomes obvious as Tucker sings, “I’m losing my head… the darkness is winning again.” These are indeed dark times, and The Center Won’t Hold takes its time coming around from despondency—“Baby, I’m not sure I want to go on at all,” Tucker confesses on “Can I Go On”—to resistance and hope. Along the way, politics, relationships, and tales from the van blend and twist into a single lyrical strand, threaded through Sleater-Kinney’s signature self-reflexiveness. (“Call the doctor / Dig me out of this mess,” Brownstein winks on “Love.”)
This may also be Sleater-Kinney’s lustiest album yet. Several of the album’s 11 songs are peppered with breathy sighs and ecstatic yelps, and it’s almost as if Brownstein is staring you directly in the eyes as she sings, “Let me defang you and defile you on the floor,” in “Bad Dance.” But this, too, has its political aspect. Sex is a common distraction for those who are desperate to escape their realities, and the record’s compulsive fixation on the physical reflects its larger desperation to find meaning in the chaos. Besides, what’s more radical than women over the age of 40 being aggressively sexual? As the band puts it in “Love,” “There’s nothing more threatening and nothing more obscene / Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen.”
A stunning finale is another Sleater-Kinney specialty, and The Center Won’t Hold delivers with the devastating, disarming “Broken,” which puts into words the feeling of spiritual brokenness felt by so many women during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last September. For assault survivors, just getting up and going to work with all these resurfaced feelings swirling around is a trial, and Tucker eloquently captures that struggle when she sings: “I really can’t fall apart right now / I really can’t touch that place / I thought I was all grown up right now / I really can’t show that face,” her vibrato-laden voice naked over a spare piano line. Reliving past traumas is hardly the sort of nostalgia any of us long for, but in our surreal dystopian present, it’s just another fact of life. So thank goodness that, after 25 years, Sleater-Kinney is striding boldly into the future, bruised and broken but still very much alive.