Nobody could have predicted it in 2015, but Sleater-Kinney couldn’t have reunited at a better time. Their fierce, unapologetically political bent, welcome in any era, sounds especially at home in a time when so much seems worse than ever. For the band’s second outing since No Cities to Love, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are once again joined by their longtime drummer Janet Weiss, who has since abruptly cut professional ties with the pair. Sleater-Kinney will unquestionably be a different band without her drumming, her departure is only one of many ways The Center Won’t Hold (★★★★) signals an abrupt break with the past. If their comeback album’s success rested on shaking up their sound while preserving the fierce edge that has defined them since their beginnings, its successor follows that same approach — although they don’t so much shake up their sound as upend it completely.
The surreal, at times pop-like tone of the album, strikingly different from anything else in the Sleater-Kinney catalogue, owes much to production by St. Vincent, who leaves dreamy synths, industrial beats, and perky new wave riffs scattered throughout. This mashup of two starkly different musical styles may be odd on paper, but the actual results are magical, in large part due to Annie Clark’s almost preternatural ability for crafting a soundscape for a given track to inhabit. Her handprint can be felt on the two guitar-heavy opening tracks, but it is the third track “Reach Out,” with its synths and bopping bass line, that stands as the first indicator of Clark’s enormous influence on the album.
As much as The Center Won’t Hold‘s production is a radical departure from the more raw sound of their earlier work, they are still recognizably Sleater-Kinney. Clark’s production complements and elevates Tucker and Brownstein’s brilliant guitarwork and Weiss’ drumming, rather than upstaging them. Guitars layer perfectly over synths on tracks like “The Dog/The Body” and the downtempo ballad “Restless,” although they are almost lost amidst the production on “LOVE.”
At its core, The Center Won’t Hold is preoccupied with human connection, threatened on all sides by modernity, politics, and the passage of time itself. Although Sleater-Kinney are reckoning with a world on fire, hopelessness and angst creep in as well. Their trademark righteous anger is balanced with heavy doses of introspection, and the effect is chilling and even disquieting at times. The deceptively upbeat track “Can I Go On” sardonically rails against our shared modern anxieties, neatly capturing the pervasive burnout and alienation of late-capitalist life. Brownstein, who leads the vocals on this track, takes aim at technology, which she presents as a kind of toxic false connection that pressures her to conceal the very darkness it engenders. “Everyone I know is napping,” she sings, bemoaning the collective exhaustion that has reduced her friends to power-nappers, inadvertently leaving each other to experience their existential crises alone and in silence.
Dread aside, it wouldn’t be Sleater-Kinney without a healthy dose of clear-eyed anger as well. While it is often directed at external targets, they are willing to turn that anger inward as well, as they do on “Hurry On Home,” an intense, desperate breakup song that finds Brownstein rattle off her insecurities and her desire to be ripped out of her own body before bringing the song to a close, frantically repeating the line, “You got me used to loving you” — as much an accusation as it is an admission.
While The Center Won’t Hold is in some ways retrospective, it actively resists trading on nostalgia for their past work. Rejecting any starry-eyed romantic view of the past is a recurring theme of the album, and it gets a reprise on “RUINS,” a powerful, bile-filled song addressed to a demon “both ancient and new” whose identity is left ambiguous, but calling it “the beast we made” gives some hints. Among other accusations, Brownstein asks, “Do you feast on nostalgia?/Take pleasure from pain?” Asking both those questions in the same breath puts the ideas into the same box, and Sleater-Kinney are sincerely hoping the answer to both is a resounding no.
Sleater-Kinney doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, or even a semblance of a roadmap out of our collective slow-rolling catastrophe. But they remind us that if we decide to stay awake and furious, and rage at the madness together, we will at least be in good company.
The Center Won’t Hold can be purchased at www.Amazon.com and iTunes, and is available on most major streaming services.