Shattered but Strong: Sleater-Kinney dips a toe into chaos

center wont hold

Maybe it was never if, but when. Almost from the beginning, Sleater-Kinney’s breakneck speed and throttling urgency have portended collapse; in terms both romantic and political, the band has warned us that stability is transient, that sooner or later things always fall apart. In their famous song “One More Hour,” they voice two lovers who’ve long given up on eternity; in a world of impermanence, they’ll settle for a few precious minutes. And throughout the War on Terror-era One Beat, they remind us how quickly the moral calculus can change for a country on the brink of the abyss. The arrival of a new album called The Center Won’t Hold feels less like a warning than a prophecy fulfilled. After so many years of staving off entropy and erasure, there’s a notable shift in Sleater-Kinney’s apocalyptic outlook. Call it acquiescence to the inevitable. “And if the world is ending now/ then let’s dance the bad dance/ we’ve been rehearsing our whole lives,” one song suggests. This is the explosive finale they’ve been preparing us for. Least we can do is hit our marks and remember our cues.

As for what’s setting off their alarm bells, you can probably hazard a guess. The 45th President looms large over the album, even if he’s never mentioned by name; there is nothing here as courageously specific as One Beat’s valiant “Combat Rock,” but also nothing as schlocky as the Trump-baiting songs Corin Tucker wrote with her other band, Filthy Friends. The writing here is more impressionistic in nature, a blur of images and feelings to suggest a loss of social cohesion and a general sense of things coming unmoored. The title song almost sounds like a narcotic update to “Dig Me Out,” but where that earlier anthem wailed for transcendence, “The Center Won’t Hold” lurches toward a quick fix, be it money, drugs, or “something holy,” whichever is closest at hand. And in “The Future is Here,” Tucker summarizes the current state of disorientation: “Never have I felt so goddamn lost and alone.” Call it a wartime prayer. A song of lament.

Sleater-Kinney proves their own point about entropy, allowing a certain level of unpredictability into their creative process. Certainly the album is distinct from the athletic No Cities to Love, in which the world’s most essential punk band ratified their muscularity and terseness after a decade of silence. But if that record consolidated the fundamentals, The Center Won’t Hold scuttles them for spare parts. There are still molten blasts of raucous fury here, but they’re interspersed between icy synth-scapes, heavy-machinery beats, disembodied voices, and guitars that thrum like buzzsaws. It’s their Achtung Baby moment, and in the title song they hurtle headlong into Zoo Station, the creak and clamor of industrial percussion building into a cathartic jolt of three-piece electric mayhem. “RUINS” totters through a haunted house of trip-hop beats and flickering, low-rent static and fuzz. “Bad Dance” sounds like musical theater that’s rusted over, kitsch that’s congealed into something hard and mean. “Reach Out” combines the spiked pop of Cyndi Lauper with echo effects worthy of The Edge. “Dip your toes into the chaos,” one song counsels. Let it never be said that Sleater-Kinney can’t take their own advice.

Assisting in their industrial revolution is producer Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, on hand with plenty of arthouse effects that sound like they could have fit on her own 2017 MASSEDUCTION (merely one of the most gloriously dark, demented pop records of the last decade). Her involvement proved divisive before The Center Won’t Hold was even released, but what’s most striking about the sound of these recordings is how acutely Clark understands what makes this band special. She wrestles their innate queerness into some of the most playful, borderline-campy material in the Sleater-Kinney canon; listen to “Can I Go On,” a frazzled showtune with a New Wave pulse. Elsewhere, she pushes them into some of the extremes of the Sleater-Kinney sound— “Restless” is their best (only?) slow song since “Modern Girl,” and the five-minute “RUINS” is relatively loose and jammy— but even scuffed up with weird sounds, these songs all have their finger on the Sleater-Kinney essence: They’re tightly-coiled and razor-edged; they bristle with tension that never quite abates, no matter how many times they erupt. It’s arguably less revisionist than The Woods, which ransacked the classic rock playbook to turn those taut little Sleater-Kinney songs into widescreen features. This one feels closer in spirit to the band that made Dig Me Out, albeit dressed up in fancy new duds. 

The Center Won’t Hold apprehends the void, but it doesn’t surrender to it. These performances are too hungry, too ferocious to feel like Sleater-Kinney has thrown in the towel; a band that can wrest existential anguish into howling vaudeville (“Bad Dance”) or sweet-and-salty synth-pop (“LOVE”) clearly hasn’t given up on punk’s street-fighting spirit. As critic Alfred Soto notes, Sleater-Kinney has long taken a position of “contempt for ‘centers,’” and maybe that explains the thread of anarchic glee that runs through these raucous recordings: Having seen just how far the monoculture has gotten us, the band isn’t entirely heartbroken to see it implode. 

Still, there’s real darkness. Like Titus Andronicus on An Obelisk, Sleater-Kinney turn the genre’s rabble-rousing inclinations inward, not just lamenting society’s collapse but also the rot of human depravity. “My heart wants the ugliest things,” Tucker sighs on “Restless,” an admission that trouble on the outside usually points to trouble on the inside. And in “RUINS,” she and Carrie Brownstein realize too late that they offered safe harbor to a monster who’s outgrown his cage, and hulks before them now as an unstoppable evil: “You’re a creature of sorrow/ You’re the beast we made/ You scratch at our sadness/ ‘Til we’re broken and frayed.” What these songs suggest is that we’ve nobody to blame but ourselves for the decay we see. The Center Won’t Hold teems with whirlwinds reaped; chickens come home to roost.

The principalities they name here aren’t necessarily political agendas nor even world leaders, but rather the slow creep of dehumanization. That’s certainly the vibe in “Hurry on Home,” a harrowing slice of devious kink. Over the clank and grind of what sound like haywire kitchen appliances, Brownstein sets a grisly domestic scene punctuated with monotonous violence (“you know I’m hair-grabbable, grand-slammable”). In Tucker’s “Reach Out,” salvation is framed both as physical autonomy (“my body is my own again”) and as validation from someone else (“reach out and see me, I’m losing my head”). It’s a song made sweeter, more powerful by its grounding in Sleater-Kinney’s long-standing commitment to indefatigable yet inclusive feminism: They have done the hard work of defining for themselves what a nourishing, empowering community looks like. They’ve never needed it more, and neither have we.

Alas, as critic Carl Wilson notes, even Sleater-Kinney’s skillfully-cultivated feminist utopia is subject to collapse; shortly before the release of The Center Won’t Hold, boon drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure from the band, citing creative differences and casting a shadow over the album’s release. It’s hard now not to think of Sleater-Kinney as another casualty of entropy, but they soldier on. The album ends with “Broken,” the most unswerving piano ballad they’ve ever put on a record. It’s a song of solidarity with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in whose plight Brownstein and Tucker discover new depths of indignation and despair. “I thought I was all grown up right now,” admits Tucker. “But I feel like I’ll never be done.” Maybe we’re never supposed to reach a point where this world’s cruelties make sense; maybe persistent revulsion is a sign of conscience at work. Thank God for Sleater-Kinney, who even in fracture show us what it looks like to feel shattered and still be strong.

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