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Published on September 16th, 2019 | by voxx

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Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold

The riot grrrl veterans enlist St. Vincent to help drastically shake up their sound…

The ninth Sleater-Kinney album arrives with the unfortunate distinction of being “The One That Cost Them A Drummer”. Between finishing the record and releasing it, Janet Weiss announced after 23 years: “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.” In a stroke, the album’s WB Yeats quoting title became bluntly ironic: things fall apart. A deeper irony is that such an ill-omened record betrays no cracks in the foundation. It roars with confidence and vigour.

When Sleater-Kinney called it quits in 2006,with Carrie Brownstein later blaming mental and physical exhaustion, it felt premature. They weren’t done yet. Brownstein formed Wild Flag with Weiss and reinvented herself as co-creator of the sketch show Portlandia, while her fellow singer and guitarist Corin Tucker released two solo albums, but Sleater-Kinney was unfinished business. The excitement that greeted the trio’s surprise return a decade later with the tight, urgent No Cities To Love wasn’t just nostalgia for a beloved band; it was the delighted realisation that they’d lost none of their hunger.

Even for a band who have never made the same album twice, The Center Won’t Hold is a radical reboot, stewarded by Annie “St. Vincent” Clark. Never likely to be a backseat producer, Clark makes her presence felt, from the clipped beats of ‘LOVE’ to the metallic sleekness of ‘Can I Go On’, but she’s enabling the band’s new ideas rather than imposing her own aesthetic. Whether taking on DFA-worthy disco-punk with ‘Hurry On Home’ or leaning into the festival-sized chorus of ‘The Dog/The Body’, Sleater-Kinney are shaking the kaleidoscope hard, and with renewed purpose.

‘Can I Go On’, an irresistible new-wave strut which declares, “Maybe I’m not sure I want to go on,” epitomises the album’s dynamic tension between psychic torment and pop verve. The album title paraphrases a line from Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, widely quoted during 2016’s annus horribilis, and the man Brownstein called “America’s terrible stalker boyfriend” looms like a gargoyle over these songs. As former members of riot grrrl bands Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17 respectively, Tucker and Brownstein carried the feminist punk flame beyond the ’90s. One Beat, from 2002, for example, was one of the first rock albums to grapple with George W Bush and The War On Terror. Sleater-Kinney have always drawn their explosive power from the volatile chemistry of defiance and unease.

They are, therefore, well-placed to join the dots between psychological, physical and political trauma. The Center Won’t Hold opens with the anguished industrial ruckus of the title track and ends with the spine-prickling ballad ‘Broken’. “Me, me too, my body cried out when she spoke those lines,” Tucker sings with knifing clarity. Midway between the two lurks ‘Ruins’, which imagines the President as a rampaging kaiju (“Eat the weak and devour the sane”) to be cast out with gnarly synth magick. Tucker has said that they turned to Clark to help them “take up more space” sonically. It worked: they sound colossal.

Remarkably for a band formed in 1994, The Center Won’t Hold has the potential to seduce brand-new fans even if it confuses some old ones. Whatever led to Weiss’s Drexit, it’s a great shame that she won’t be a part of this invigorating new phase. As the title of one song has it: ‘The Future Is Here’.

- By Jake White


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