Album Review: Sleater-Kinney - 'The Center Won't Hold'
Following their decade long "indefinite hiatus" and 2015's underwhelming comeback record, Sleater-Kinney's latest offering sees them back on form.
Sleater-Kinney are one of the best guitar bands of the past two decades. This should not be a controversial statement, and I honestly doubt it would be if it wasn’t for the band’s puzzling relative obscurity. They’ve been producing records since 1995 and in that time, they’ve spanned many subgenres of punk, indie and alternative rock, amalgamating into a captivating sound which is wholly their own. This sound was perfected on their 2005 record The Woods – a masterful and unflinchingly consistent alternative rock album that encapsulates all the best elements of 2000’s underground rock music into its pleasing tapestry of chunky, fuzzed out guitars, intricate yet technical drumming and Carrie Brownstein’s commanding howl.
Since returning in 2015 with a slightly middle of the road reunion album, No Cities to Love, the band have remained a commited touring act and were said to have returned to the studio in 2018 to record a follow-up; one which was later revealed to feature St Vincent in the production booth. Annie Clark’s own recent material has favoured the unconventional, since her 2014 self-titled record and she bring a level of sonic experimentation to Sleater-Kinney’s sound that is previously unprecedented in their discography.
"They’ve been producing records since 1995 and in that time, they’ve spanned many sub-genres of punk, indie and alternative rock, amalgamating into a captivating sound which is wholly their own."
This new-found adventurousness is clear from the outset with opener The Centre Won’t Hold, which has an authoritarian march to its groove carried by a chunky mechanical thumping and ominous piano licks, along with eerie backing vocals repeating the song’s title mantra. It all comes together in a way reminiscent of a modern update of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot; a normally straightforward rock act utilize a left-field collaborator to push themselves far outside their comfort zone, and in both cases the result is similarly dystopian. This is until the punishing guitars drop in and the song employs a traditional Sleater-Kinney crescendo, creating a thrilling finale in which chunky, propulsive riffs and electronic embellishments form a satisfying blend of old and new.
Many of the other finest songs on the album employ a similarly smooth and effortless blend of Sleater-Kinney’s unrivaled ability to create thrilling and organic rock music with creative and bizarre production choices. For example, the mutated, processed guitar sounds and rumbling sub-bass synth on Hurry on Home also features an instant-classic Sleater-Kinney riff and one of the album’s most animated vocal performances from Carrie Brownstein as she pleads with the song’s subject, with whom her romantic attraction seems to border on obsession.
"A normally straightforward rock act utilize a left-field collaborator to push themselves far outside their comfort zone."
Other songs thrive off sleek mature song writing; the romantic and swooning jangle-indie of Restless features the same idiosyncratic production choices that make much of the album so interesting, simply combined with a gorgeous melody and sparkling guitars that would give Real Estate and just about any other 2010’s jangle-indie acts a run for their money.
The album falters, but only occasionally – the stiflingly rigid and dull dirge RUINS fails to attain its lofty ambition of frosty alien beauty with its incomprehensible, muddy bridge and general vocals and instrumentals that are so buried by effects they never fully coalesce into much of a song beyond the bland sound-play. The corny alt-rock groover Bad Dance is another weak link and reads foremost as the audio equivalent of jazz hands (which isn’t a compliment). However, the album’s hits make up for these weaker moments in the majority of cases, with bold and striking highs such as the effortlessly anthemic The Future Is Here. This track’s stunning harmonised “na-na-na-na-na” chorus vocals fall on the tasteful side of 80’s high-gloss built on a bedrock of revving motorized synths, while its chorus laden new-wave guitar licks again recall Iggy Pop and The Cure, referencing the most boundary pushing sounds of pop/rock history.
Overall, this is a great album and a solid release in Sleater-Kinney’s catalogue, marking a pleasing course correction from the lazy song writing that plagued No Cities To Love and again positioning Sleater-Kinney as one of rock music’s most focused and reliable acts, effortlessly expanding their legacy while keeping much of what fans love about the band’s classic releases. The album overall benefits from collaborator St Vincent’s production, although at times you do get a sense that her aesthetic sensibilities (particularly those found on 2017’s MassEduction) sometimes override the band’s own tastes. This can have the effect of leaving the record feeling a bit less rich, slightly lacking in the spontaneous, thrill seeking personality of some of their stronger releases in the 2000’s.
"This is Sleater-Kinney at their most acutely aware that they must evolve their sound and maintain the creative momentum of their pre-hiatus material."
In the wake of the band’s long-time drummer Janet Weiss’ sudden and abrupt exit, I am curious to see how they choose to evolve from here and which of the many directions teased at on this record they’ll choose to grow into. Whether they’ll never adopt a replacement drummer and instead opt for the mechanical sequencing found on the front end of The Centre Won’t Hold, or return to a more conventional rock setup, I’m sure they’ll remain in a lane of all of their own. To announce her departure from the band Weiss tweeted “[it’s] time for me to move on”, which in many ways could be viewed as the mission statement for this album. This is Sleater-Kinney at their most acutely aware that they must evolve their sound and maintain the creative momentum of their pre-hiatus material in order to keep their relevance and their reputation as one of the most underrated acts in modern rock music intact. I would say that in this case, they have gracefully succeeded in doing so.