In a sentence:
Aided by St. Vincent on production, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ boasts the widest range of sonic influences for any Sleater-Kinney album so far.
A new album
from Sleater-Kinney is always a momentous occasion, but the
circumstances surrounding the release of their new ninth album The Center
Won’t Hold has threatened to overshadow the musical content therein. No
sooner had they completed the recording (under the aegis of producer Annie
Clark – a.k.a. St. Vincent) and released its first single than drummer Janet
Weiss announced she was quitting Sleater-Kinney after 22 years, tweeting that
it was “time for me to move on” and that the band was heading “in a different
direction”. Long-term fans of the group must have been left wondering what was
so different about the new record to force Weiss into making such a drastic
In a career
spanning two decades, Weiss and her bandmates Corin Tucker and Carrie
Brownstein have thrashed, purred, howled and high-kicked their way through eight
albums of politically and socially aware punk and alternative rock, always
seeking to adapt and evolve their formula album by album by building in
different instruments and compositional techniques. It was an arc that took in
the coruscating, complex post-riot-grrrl stylings of Call The Doctor to the raucous, psychedelia-influenced The Woods, with many iterations in between.
MORE: An Introduction to Sleater-Kinney
In this context, The Center Won’t Hold constitutes one of the most interesting releases of 2019. Its very title suggests internal discord – either within the band, or within wider politics. Although some will leap to the conclusion that her presence has forced Weiss out, the only conclusion to draw from the finished record is that Annie Clark has been an inspired choice of producer, acting as a creative foil and aiding Sleater-Kinney in the building of new ideas, but also, importantly, not overshadowing their personality. The Center Won’t Hold is a dramatically different kind of Sleater-Kinney album, but it’s also unquestionably still a Sleater-Kinney album.
fingerprints are more in evidence in some places than others. Indeed, from the opening title track’s distressed sound with its marching, rattling
industrial percussion and blast of processed grunge, it’s clear that she’s
inspired some significant, in some places wholesale changes to the traditional
Sleater-Kinney sound. Weiss’s drumming is sometimes dialed back to little more
than a metronomic pulse, backgrounded in favour of other instruments where it
had always shared the spotlight with vocals, guitar and bass. The digitised
buzz of ‘RUINS’ is also classic St. Vincent, and the art-pop
sashaying of ‘Can I Go On’ carries a sense of theatricality
that could have come from Strange Mercy.
Tucker and Brownstein’s guitars are manipulated and distorted to the point that
they bear resemblance to different genres. The new-wave sheen of single ‘Hurry On Home’, in which Brownstein chants and taunts “you
got me used to loving you”, and the soft synths underpinning ‘Reach Out’, sound like the work of a different band at
times. The swinging beat of ‘Bad Dance’ sees them in more a playful mode, while the
grin-inducingly catchy post-punk revivalism of ‘LOVE’ would be cheesy in other hands. The ruminative
ballad ‘Broken’ concerning surviving trauma that closes the
record is wonderful, and something they’ve never tried before.
interplay between the two vocalists – Brownstein’s coquettish, even goofy style
and Tucker’s more serious intonations – has also largely disappeared. Where
they often battled with each other for prominence, mirroring their music’s
knotty, garrulous qualities, on The Center Won’t Hold they often sing
their own songs for themselves without the involvement of the other. But,
again, it’s not something that the listener misses or is to the detriment of
the album, just a different way in which Sleater-Kinney can sound great. The
apocalyptic single ‘The Future Is Here’ (“never have I felt so goddamn
lost and low”), imagining sex and lust as a universal refuge in times of
upheaval, and the plea for visibility in society of the brilliant ‘The Dog / The Body’, are moments that showcase their
lyrical and vocal forcefulness in a way that will please fans of older
Center Won’t Hold does undeniably have is the biggest diversity of sonic
influences for any Sleater-Kinney album yet. Crucially, the band have the
songwriting chops between them to make almost all of the individual ideas work,
and the whole makes sense as an embracing of the bewildering and lonely chaos
that constitutes our accelerating lives in the modern world. Furthermore, it
shows – as if it still really needed to be proven – that the band can turn
their hands to many different moods and styles and still come up sounding vital
in 2019. (8/10) (Ed Biggs)
Listen to The Center Won’t Hold by Sleater-Kinney here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Ed Biggs, Janet Weiss, review, Sleater-Kinney, St. Vincent, The Center Won't Hold
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