The Center Won’t Hold is Sleater-Kinney’s weakest record since Call the Doctor. It’s still pretty goddamn great, though.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Music aficionados can have a real love-hate relationship when it comes to “narrative,” the story surrounding a new release album. Those carefully-selected PR soundbites, the revealing interview junkets, and any potential drama that may arise in the run-up to drop-day. On the one hand, they might colour one’s perception of the record heading in in a manner which can lead to the music itself being an afterthought, something to shape into preordained “this is an important masterpiece” or “this was a trash mistake” hot-takes. On the other, sometimes that narrative, in all its good or bad, can help make sense of a record that otherwise may be somewhat confounding in a manner which is kinda vital to the critique overall.
This is my way of admitting that I wanted so very hard to just talk about the music on Sleater-Kinney’s ninth studio album, The Center Won’t Hold, separate to all of the honestly mildly-upsetting and slightly-manufactured drama which accompanied its release and undoubtedly had more sceptical fans and critics sharpening their knives gleefully. But the narrative explains a lot because without it, and even with the album having tangible reference points in the band’s prior discography – the politicism of One Beat, the exhausted introspection of The Hot Rock, the poppier sheen of parts of All Hands on the Band One, the shift towards new-wave on No Cities to Love – this is a hell of a left-turn both in the initial shock and a lot of the underlying core mechanics of the songwriting.
So, to recap: regular producer John Goodmanson is out, and St. Vincent herself, Annie Clark, is in bringing with her all kinds of production flourishes and a shift towards her theatrical dirty-pop. Drummer Janet Weiss suggested the partnership but then ended up missing most of the recording sessions due to her non-band work and, at the start of July, left the band citing “musical differences.” Vocalist-guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, meanwhile, wrote music for S-K separate from one another for the first time ever, bringing nearly-completed individual demos to the sessions rather than hashing out the songs together in practice rooms like they had done on every other album prior. Corin’s songs are often tired, beaten-down by the political hellscape surrounding her every day as she wakes up; Carrie’s are poppy and sexual, the result of a growing love of pop music and a gradual owning of her sexuality and carnal desires after writing her 2015 memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.
These facts snap a lot of The Center Won’t Hold into place. As exhilarating as it is to hear this trio tear through the opening one-two volley of the title track and “Hurry On Home,” where the combination of the S-K and S-V sounds end up exactly as magnificent and vital as they sound on-paper (trashy Annie of St. Vincent and MASSEDUCTION shows up big-time on those cuts), they’re also kind of a fake-out. Much of the album is mid-tempo and drained, exemplified by the lack of cathartic releases in tracks like “Reach Out,” the Courtney Barnett-reminiscent “Restless,” and the gothic rain-slicked “The Future Is Here.” Lyrically, many of these songs find Carrie and Corin trying their best to keep it together for both themselves and the people who look up to them – “Sell our rage, buy and trade/But we still cry for free everyday” as Carrie puts it on, fittingly, “Can I Go On” – and not always managing, as on the closing 1am cabaret bar piano ballad “Broken.” Unlike with One Beat’s pointed aims at George W. Bush’s presidency, Center is more political through the personal with arguably only centrepiece “RUINS” and the Christine Blasey Ford-invoking “Broken” looking fully outwards.
Carrie and Corin’s decision to write separately means that the songs here don’t have the same tension and conflict of prior S-K albums. The knotty guitar work, where both women keep intersecting their separate lines to such a degree that the designation of whom is meant to be playing Lead or Rhythm blurs into meaninglessness, is pretty much non-existent, although rumours of an absence of guitar playing altogether have been greatly exaggerated. Whilst they do still harmonise and trade the odd line, songs can now vocally be cleanly delineated between “Carrie’s songs” and “Corin’s songs,” whomever is not taking lead mostly just floats around the background adding accents (such as Corin’s sexual yelps on “Hurry On Home”). And whilst Janet is still here, one of the greatest drummers of all-time has had her presence significantly reduced; Annie’s production pushes her deep into the background (most especially notable when listening on headphones) and her being tasked with playing straightforward dance beats on songs she came to late leaves her less room to pull off unconventional and powerful rhythms like those on “Dig Me Out” or “Get Up” or (most relevantly) the not-dissimilar “Fangless.”
Without the narrative, all of this adds up to a late-career experiment album by three women refusing to rest on their laurels. With the narrative, it’s effectively a dinner bell for lapsing fans and false accusations of “selling out” and sexist applications of Yoko Ono iconography. In whichever case, The Center Won’t Hold is inarguably the weakest Sleater-Kinney record since Call the Doctor, the first time that their near-flawless discography has taken a genuine dip in quality rather than just being a case of personal subgenre preference. And yet, despite this fact, I still find myself deeply enjoying this record and not just as a “if any band deserves the chance to drastically experiment for an LP or two after being so reliably exceptional for so long, it’s this one” move.
Some of the tracks don’t quite work – I’m not sure that I’m fully sold on “RUINS” especially at its five minute length, whilst “Bad Dance” alternates between a scrapped My Chemical Romance demo and a mid-tier Disney villain song with neither being a great look for this particular band – but when it goes off, it goes off. Annie’s production may unfairly background the drums, but there are also so many moments where her touches absolutely make a song. The bridge on “Can I Go On” that dirties the song up to almost “Huey Newton” levels, the opening blasts of Corin’s wail on “Hurry On Home” and their triumphant return as the song punches through to its outro, how the Devo-esque “LOVE” just cracks open like the sun through the clouds when the chorus hits, the aforementioned late-80s goth-pop production of “The Future Is Here” that immediately puts me in the headspace of a rain-slicked cyberpunk light-rail ride.
The hooks are sticky and just the right amount of poppy, Carrie and Corin push their vocal performances into unexpected directions that work exceptionally for the songs they’re a part of – Carrie audibly strains for much of “Can I Go On” in a manner which befits the crushing anxiety of her lyrics, whilst “The Future Is Here” sees Corin dropping into a deeper register not heard since her days in Heavens To Betsy. And then there’s “The Dog/The Body,” the album’s penultimate track, perhaps the most classic rock the band have ever sounded and absolutely transcendent, making resignation over loneliness and unperson-hood surprisingly cathartic with Janet’s drums powering through and a torchlight chorus designed for mass singalongs, plus this little alternating two-note synth-woodwind that pops in for just eight bars after the first chorus yet completely canonises the song.
Should Sleater-Kinney continue, and both Corin and Carrie have indicated that they will, then The Center Won’t Hold will likely be seen as a transition album, the work of a restless band trying to figure out what to do next rather than pump out a few more No Cities to Loves whilst riding the goodwill of their reunion as far as it could go. Resultantly, it is a tad befuddling and a little messy and perhaps a touch try-hard. But its batting average is also far higher than most other albums of this ilk, repeated listening keeps teasing out new production flourishes that reveal surprising depths to their respective songs, and when everything properly slots into place then the magic is inarguably still there. There are bands half the age of Sleater-Kinney unwilling to put themselves out there like this. Here’s to the next reinvention.
Callie Petch is just the dog, they’re just the body tonight.