Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold

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Sleater-Kinney release their anticipated ninth album, the second since 2016’s comeback ‘No Cities to Love’, and it’s a very different animal.

Before the record was released there was much speculation as to what Annie Clarke, as Producer, would do with our much beloved Riot grrrl three piece, and before the record even dropped, the three piece had become a two piece with the departure of long standing drummer Janet Weiss. Weiss sighting, ‘The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on’, which was possibly the first review we heard. Not a great start, but how does it sound?

The record opens with title track, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, ironically the first thing you hear are drums, but not Janet’s drums, but something more looped and electronic. Electronica is clearly the new direction we’re heading in. The track is a typical warm up for SK and winds slowly and slowing , getting louder and louder, repeating it’s title over and over, in between Carrie Browstein’s urgent vocals. From the get-go it’s about reinvention and casting off the old and reinventing into the new. Corin’s vocal crashes in and the whole track turns into something off 2005’s ‘The Woods’ (the heaviest album of SK’s cannon). It’s a hell of an intro. Second track, Carrie’s radio-friendly ‘Hurry On Home’, with its verse/chorus structure and pop sensibilities. It’s a great song, easily the clear single off the record, and one I’ve played a lot. Already, you can hear Clarke’s influence, with this one sounding like an off-cut of her 2014 ‘St Vincent’ album.

What’s apparent early into the record is the absence of what we loved about Sleater-Kinney in the interplay between Corin Tucker and Carrie Browstein’s vocals. We have ‘Corin tracks’ and there are ‘Carrie tracks’, and it’s obvious the record has not been a written collaboratively. For me, Sleater-Kinney has always been about Corin Tucker’s voice. As anyone who has seen SK live will testify, Corin is a force of nature and probably the most astonishing live vocalist you will ever see. Throughout the record (aside from the final track), I felt this is hidden on ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ and it’s not clear why. There are rarely moments when Corin really lets go as she used to. It’s all very restrained.

Track three, ‘Reach Out’ is pure Depeche Mode in all its electronic glory. Not the band we were expecting, but a great pop song all the same. ‘Can I Go On’ follows with Brownstein taking vocal duties, and I’m not sure this one actually works. When Carrie is good, she’s volcanic, but this one is not a great showcase for her vocal style. Also there is a distinct lack of the snarling, wailing guitars, which as an SK fan I’m really craving.

‘Restless’ is a breezy, slow indie guitar workout, which tells a story of running away, regret and the need for change. It’s not their finest moment and feels a little uncooked for such a bold mid-point in the record. Next track, ‘Ruins’ is more familiar territory, sounding like something left over from the ‘No Cities to Love’ sessions. The sound throughout is turned down for SK. Nothing really approaches the apocalyptic volume SK are known and loved for. This is a band who make ears bleed and faces melt, and although I can respect a different direction, it still feels like a compromise. The fire is there, but it’s been muted in favour of glossy production, to (I guess) make it more accessible.

‘LOVE’ is SK’s smart, snappy Devo lovechild. It’s hypnotic, danceable, Corin’s harmonies are incredible and this is their most polished offering thus for. I’m sure this will be stunning at the live show. Juxtaposed even for SK then comes the swinging swagger of odd-ball ‘Bad Dance’, which is a track so out of character it’s difficult to believe this is Sleater Kinney. It’s theatrical, it’s camp, but I’m sure someone will carve out an amazing video for it. It’s wild, and I don’t fully understand it.

Heading towards the end of the album Corins’ ‘The Future is Here’ is steeped in faded eighties synth, and has that amazing  bass sound most associated with The Cure. It’s seductive, beautiful, and probably my favourite tracks on the album.

‘The Dog / The Body’ (my interpretation) details an abusive relationship, the need to get out, whilst wresting with the self-esteem issues caused by the relationship itself. It’s personal, it’s stripped down, honest, and easily the darkest, most serious moment on the record.

‘Broken’ is a beautiful and heart-breaking piano-led closing track focused on sexual abuse and the ‘Me Too’ movement of recent years. It’s affecting, beautiful, upsetting and the absolute take-away track of the album. Corin’s vocal is sublime and requires only the minimal accompaniment it’s given. It ends the record beautifully.

As Weiss testified, this is a very different direction for Sleater–Kinney, and while much of it works, there are areas which could have used more polish and development. Clarke‘s production is flawless, but I can’t help but feel this is at the detriment of Sleater-Kinney as the kick-ass rock power trio we have come to know and love. This is easily the most accessible record they’ve ever made, it’s radio friendly, there are multiple singles in there, but as a band I’m not sure this progresses them. It feels to me that this could have been a great EP, but as an album for a band who are this seminal, I can’t help but feel a little short changed.