The Center Won’t Hold
[Mom + Pop; 2019]
When Sleater-Kinney released No Cities To Love in January 2015, it was the ass-kicking jumpstart the year needed. The iconic trio’s first album after a nearly decade-long hiatus, it was welcomed with open arms across the board. Critics and diehards alike linked hands across America to sing “Price Tag” and sway gently under the afternoon sun.
And how could they not? This was Sleater-Kinney absolutely ripping, firing on all cylinders. Carrie, Corin, and Janet sounded like they had lost exactly zero steps since the last time they had obliterated our eardrums. Groundbreaking? Maybe not. But exactly what people at that moment were craving? Hell yeah. Sleater-Kinney not only came back, but also were back. 2015, what a year. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, you were there. Suffice it to say that things went down in 2016 that led to the slow, horrifying realization that we’ve been neck-deep in Hellworld this whole time. We’ve been left without a middle ground to stand on. Moderate solutions to catastrophic problems seem hopeless. Day-to-day life often feels like the moments that happen in between the next climate disaster or mass shooting or human rights atrocity. You struggle to push it all away, trying to maintain some semblance of sanity and control, but the dread is always right there, lingering. The future is here, and the future is fucked up.
Into that, Sleater-Kinney have returned again with their ninth album, The Center Won’t Hold.
Reflecting a world that has altered completely since their previous release, Sleater-Kinney in turn have altered their tried and true sound. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s dueling guitar lines have given way to an increased use of synthesizer and electronics. While not a “pop” album, The Center Won’t Hold certainly leans more in that direction than any previous Sleater-Kinney release. In promo photos — including the now infamous “front butt” — they look like they’re dressed for a dystopian goth prom. Or, like they could roll with Eleven circa Stranger Things season two. Really, though, they just look like they’ve been listening to a lot of St. Vincent, which makes perfect sense seeing as the entirety of this album was produced by St. Vincent herself, Annie Clark.
In theory, Sleater-Kinney and St. Vincent working in tandem should be a comic book-esque super hero teamup. Two of the strongest forces in modern music, unite! In practice, however, it’s not always a perfect fit. While far from dreadful, this is not the rock music statement of the year we perhaps dreamed of, nor is it close to touching the best work of either party.
A song like “Restless” meanders, ironically content to rock moderately around the center, feeling fangless and dull. “RUINS”
comes cut from a similar cloth to St. Vincent songs like “Cheerleader” and “Year of the Tiger,” but it’s plodding in comparison. “Bad Dance” even seems like it could be at home on My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, which is really neither good nor bad, just kind of “hmm” for a Sleater-Kinney album.
Overall, though, The Center Won’t Hold is what most respected musicologists would term a “good album with some great songs.” Lead single “Hurry On Home” — a song that inspired so many “Sleater-Kinney and St. Vincent are going to make the best album of the year” thoughts — remains undefeated. Even within the context of an album that doesn’t always deliver, it slays. Is this because it feels like the most “classic” Sleater-Kinney song? Potentially. But regardless, the way it explodes out from the second half of the title/lead track while maintaining a near-apocalyptic drive is magnificent. Ferocity refusing to be silenced.
“The Future Is Here” ruminates on how we start and end our days on “a tiny screen,” watching the horrors of the world unfold in real time, yet powerless to do anything about it. Musically, the song builds and builds to pre-choruses about “feeling so lost and alone,” before settling down to an almost resigned chorus of “I need you more than I ever have/ Because the future’s here, and we can’t go back.” It captures the slow burn of modern misery, the intense menace that’s always one second from striking us.
As a whole, The Center Won’t Hold delves into a question baffling every sane person in existence: if the world is more connected than ever before, why do we feel so disconnected from each other? Brownstein and Tucker don’t offer an answer to that question however, nor do they try to act like they have one. Largely, their solution to at least enduring it all seems to lay with camaraderie, bonds that can survive even the most dire of times. As the chorus to “Reach Out” goes, “Reach out, I can’t fight without you, my friend.”
The Amazon has been intentionally lit on fire. Joe Biden is leading polls and mumbling about being Vice President when The Woods was released in 2005. Janet Weiss — anchor of Sleater-Kinney’s sound since joining and one of our finest drummers, period — quit the band over a month before this album was even released. To quote her, “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.” Sleater-Kinney are as lost as we are. The center won’t hold. Sometimes all we can do is link hands across the darkness to sing and sway gently under the blood red sun.