Sleater-Kinney are like a kind of sacred cult, such is the intense degree that they are revered and worshipped by their fans and US music journalists, bar absolutely none. They have a longevity (23 years) that’s due partly to their ferocious intent to challenge expectations and address the cultural noise that each album release has been born into, and also because the quality of their songwriting and sonic creativity rarely falters.
The Center Won’t Hold is the band’s ninth release and is marked out as significant by two things. One is that it’s produced by Annie Clark AKA St Vincent but more significantly, and potentially as a consequence of this, drummer Janet Weiss left the band after this record’s completion.
‘The band is heading in a new direction and it’s time for me to move on,’ said Weiss and doubtless fans will be looking for clues as to what exactly has gone down. And although The Center Won’t Hold is still a Sleater-Kinney record, it is a different kind of record from what we have heard before. A shiny and altogether more sophisticated pop record is somehow contained within it and at times it’s this record that bursts forward and takes the lead before the more familiar soundscapes associated with Sleater-Kinney slip back into view and dominate again. It’s not as disconcerting or as messy as it may sound and Clark does a good job of presenting a coherent set of 10 songs, but sometimes her presence can be a little too strongly felt.
Tracks like the tidy drum machine ping of ‘LOVE’ and the more unruly ‘Bad Dance’ evoke a surprising nostalgia for new wave eccentrics from the early 80s like Devo and The B52s, both musically and vocally. ‘The Dog/the Body’ is a big tune made up two separate parts, quiet and then loud and is brilliant and rowdy and will please fans that may be sensitive to the more mannered material here.
‘Hurry on Home’ sounds like a St Vincent record as does the guitar part on the ‘Can I Go On’, both are very good songs but the decision to include music that is so instantly traceable to the producer’s own work is an unusual decision for a band with such a strong and enduring musical blueprint of their own.
Lyrically, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein address ageing (‘there’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene, than a well-worn body demanding to be seen – fuck!’), computers and feeling tired of everything, and the rage heard here is palpable and inspiringly potent. It’s the last track, ‘Broken’, where the band do something rather radical and, with Tucker unusually on lead vocals, deliver a piano ballad that could appear as a show tune in a #metoo musical. There is no ambiguity here. Tucker recalls Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh and the despair of realising that essential values are under attack and seemingly, sometimes, beyond repair or resolve.
The Center Won’t Hold is a sharp, efficient and considered record which ends suddenly after its 39 minute running time with little excess fat. Sleater-Kinney have indeed made their variation of a pop record then, something which St Vincent has become somewhat of a pro at, and although this may discourage some fans it shouldn’t stop anyone else who might be curious to hear what that could sound like.