When setting out to record their ninth studio album, Sleater-Kinney began pondering with the idea of working with Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy on the follow-up to No Cities to Love. However, once S-K began the writing process and collaborating with St. Vincent, the band loved this new and exciting direction too much to pass up the chance to have St. Vincent produce the entire album. Once considered one of indie rock’s most reliable bands for their steady work ethic, Sleater-Kinney found themselves at a late-career crossroads. Do they make a similar sounding record to what their audience had come to expect, or push themselves to their creative limits by reinventing what their band could become? The latter is what came to fruition here on The Center Won’t Hold: an electronically expansive record that tinkers with modern sounds and state of the art production elements.
Just before releasing the record, their longtime drummer Janet Weiss announced that she was departing the band and would not be touring during this cycle. What Weiss has left behind is a stellar legacy of incredible indie punk rock songs from a trio of women who have made their own damn path in this music industry. Sleater-Kinney have turned the page into a new chapter of their career that is equally thrilling and anxiety-inducing all at the same time.
Kicking off the set with the title track, the first thing you’ll notice is the electronic-sounding drum-kit that eventually breaks away for a flurry of guitar-bliss courtesy of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Weiss keeps everything in sync even as the track drifts into the aggressive nature we have come to expect from the unit. “Hurry on Home” features some unique electronica elements blanketed over the guitar-driven storytelling from Brownstein and turns out to be one of the stronger songs in the set. Brownstein confidently wails on the lead single, “You know I’m dress down-able/Uptown-able/Hair grab-able/Grand-slammable/But just hurry on home to me/’Cause it’s just what we do.” Her confidence on a game-changing album such as The Center Won’t Hold is intoxicating as the album progresses with the steadfast mindset of making a record that is both modern and important.
“Reach Out” finds the band harmonizing on some haunting vocals in the chorus of the track where Brownstein and Tucker click along as brilliantly as ever when they croon, “Reach out, touch me/Stuck on the edge/Reach out, darkness/Is winning again/Reach out and see me/I’m losing my head/Reach out, I can’t fight/Without you my friend.” The overall theme on the record of moving on, dealing with loss, and the uncertainty of not knowing what will come next all comes into focus on this song that drives the point home.
Some creative pop elements found on “Can I Go On,” such as the addition of keyboards, are all well-received as it allows the band to continue to expand on the thematic elements they were going for during the writing process. Songs like this only get more cherished as time goes on, as Sleater-Kinney have created a great collection of tracks that are still worthy of the band’s lasting legacy. “Restless” on the other hand, takes a brief break from the electronica-tinged rock and instead provides a reprieve from the dense sounds found on the earlier material. This “classic Sleater-Kinney sounding track” is a solid reminder to the listener that this is still the same band they fell in love with over the years in the indie rock scene.
“Ruins” gets the heavy synths back at the forefront, and will surely bellow from the rafters during their upcoming large club tour of the US. One important message comes from Brownstein during the bridge when she sings, “Do you feast on nostalgia?/Take pleasure from pain/Look out ’cause the children/Will learn your real name.” Dark material, yes, but the overall message of living in the past can be just as dangerous as not learning from history.
Other songs that round out the record further expand upon the messages of acceptance and tolerance towards people who may think differently than us (such as “Love” and “Bad Dance”). The latter is more of a metaphor of the state of the world we are living as or as Brownstein puts it, “We’ve been rehearsing our whole lives/And if we’re all going down in flames/Then let’s dance the bad dance/We’ve been rehearsing our whole lives.” These are dire times, and Sleater-Kinney is feeding off the immediacy of needing change.
St. Vincent’s production elements never go un-noticed on this dynamic record, and her presence is felt far and wide on songs such as “The Future is Here.” The higher-register vocals from Brownstein and Tucker on the chorus are brilliantly harmonized and help enhance the overall direction the band was going for.
“The Dog The Body” is one of the songs that didn’t hit me at first listen, but after a few repeat spins, I started to grasp what the band was likely going for there. The catchy chorus is a bright contrast to the brooding verses and prevents the material from going too far down the rabbit hole. All of the songs eventually paves the way to the piano-based ballad “Broken.” Brownstein’s vulnerability on her vocal delivery is truly majestic and reminded me of Evanescence’s Amy Lee. Comparisons aside, Brownstein and crew have created a great end-cap to a collection of songs that rocks with immediacy and political importance. Sleater-Kinney is changing, yes, but let’s not mistake change for the next proper step in evolving.