Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won’t Hold review – No place for nostalgia

Fri, Aug 16, 2019, 05:00


The Center Won't Hold




In the run-up to the release of this album, Sleater-Kinney were faced with a crisis of-sorts. The trio, who had been both progenitors and protagonists of the riot grrrl movement that swept America’s Pacific North-West in the 1990s, had only just re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, thanks to a 2014 reunion and a thrillingly visceral comeback in No Cities to Love the following year.

With album number nine in the bag, all seemed to be going well – until drummer Janet Weiss announced that she was quitting the role that she had held in the band since 1996. Her parting statement left no room for misinterpretation: “The band is heading in a new direction,” she wrote, “and it is time for me to move on.”

Weiss was not wrong about the band heading in a new direction. Having enlisted St Vincent aka Annie Clark as the producer for The Center Won’t Hold (apparently Weiss’s idea, dispelling accusations of the art-pop-rocker as Sleater-Kinney’s own Yoko Ono), it’s clear that her fingerprints are smudged all over the metaphorical sleeve of this album.

For fans of Sleater-Kinney albums like The Woods, The Center Won’t Hold may prove more difficult to warm to – at least initially.
For fans of Sleater-Kinney albums like The Woods, The Center Won’t Hold may prove more difficult to warm to – at least initially.

Even so, songwriters and co-vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein remain the dominant force behind any change, having previously cited Rihanna’s song Stay as a touchpoint for the album they wanted to make this time around.

If that sounds like an odd source of inspiration for a feminist punk band, it is. Sleater-Kinney haven’t quite gone full pop here, but there is certainly a softer, more adventurous and less guitar-led sound on display.

From the industrial clank and grind of the title track’s intro, to the subtle shades of 1980s power balladry of Reach Out, the dynamic pop of Can I Go On and the zippy, Kids in America meets-new wave of Love, this is Sleater-Kinney as you’ve never quite heard them before.

Yet there is still room for fuzzy guitar riffs and snarling rock ‘n’ roll on the likes of the disconcerting, white noise-addled Ruins and the grungey explosion of The Center Won’t Hold.

Plenty to say

Lyrically, Brownstein and Tucker’s songs seem to hover somewhere between frustration and exasperation. While the album’s title suggests an overtly political perspective, it instead adapts an approach that is “personal in the midst of the political chaos” currently encumbering the world.

Their stance is threaded throughout the album in snatches of lyrics here and there; Reach Out sees them lament that “darkness is winning again”, Ruins adapts the mantra of “Eat the weak and destroy the sane”, while piano ballad Broken is a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who testified against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh last year (“She stood up for us and she testified’/My body cried out when she spoke those lines”).

Other songs mourn the loss of human connection and the profusion of apathy (The Future is Here, Can I Go On) or strike a defiant tone; “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene than a well-worn body demanding to be seen” seems like a direct riposte to the notion of women “taking up space” in rock music.

For fans of Sleater-Kinney albums like The Woods, The Center Won’t Hold may prove more difficult to warm to – at least initially. Underneath the electronics, the pop melodies, the celebrity producer and the glossy facade, however, it’s clear that nostalgia has no place in the newly-aligned duo’s world.

Twenty-five years after first forming, they evidentially remain both a band with plenty to say, and one unafraid to take risks in how they say it.