Even before its release, Sleater-Kinney's new album was a point of contention.
Early this year, news broke that St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, would produce the album. Fans just about lost their minds. Clark's ear for angular, guitar-powered art pop, combined with the raw power of the Portland-bred riot grrrl torchbearers—it seemed the result would have to be badass.
Then came news that drummer Janet Weiss, who helped jolt Sleater-Kinney to legend status when she joined in 1996, had quit the band. On July 1, Weiss announced on Instagram that "the band is heading in a new direction," and she had decided to move on. Almost immediately, the pre-album hype switched from excitement to bated skepticism. Would the band become unrecognizable? Was there bad blood behind the scenes? Were they "selling out"?
Weiss has yet to offer any further comment, and Sleater-Kinney's two remaining members, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, have offered little insight in interviews, often shifting from specific details to homilies about soldiering on. But this Friday, The Center Won't Hold, the now-duo's new album, is due for release, and it certainly sounds like the start of a new era. Across its 11 tracks, Sleater-Kinney fully burst out of the riot grrrl mold, dabbling in everything from glam rock to synth pop, and dive deeper into their New Wave leanings than ever before. The band wears their new polish like a weapon, and Clark's fingerprints are everywhere, from the jagged riffs to the disco-inflected basslines to the syncopated, wailing backup vocals.
On the album's opener and title track, the result is truly inspired. "The Center Won't Hold" is industrial, stark and ferocious. Brownstein's voice prowls across the verses, and the percussion rattles like chains. Then, all hell breaks loose—the drums crash and a growling guitar riff powers through the final burst.
Still, it's hard not to listen to The Center Won't Hold without thinking about what the band is now missing. Weiss' precise yet resonate drumming cuts through the album's calculated, heavily produced sheen. But her departure isn't the only baggage that weighs down The Center Won't Hold. Just before Sleater-Kinney stepped into the studio to record last fall, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The band has been railing against the patriarchy since the '90s, so it's not exactly surprising there's a song dedicated to Christine Blasey Ford. It is surprising, though, that it's a piano ballad. "Broken," the album's final track, is as somber as it is literal. "She stood up for us/And she testified," sings Tucker with late-night melancholy. "Me too/My body cried out when she spoke those lines."
It makes for a bleak ending. Punk is typically an outlet for rage, but on The Center Won't Hold, it sounds more weary than anything. Instead of the traditional "fuck you," the album brandishes its battle wounds in a way that borders on self-deprecation. A line from the boppy, Devo-indebted "Love" has already been taken as a sort of mission statement: "There's nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene than a well-worn body demanding to be seen." The yearning narrator of "Hurry on Home," the album's slick lead single, declares herself "unfuckable," and even the breezy "Restless," the closest thing on the album to a love song, is hardly uplifting: "I've learned to love the ugliest things/Like you and me," Brownstein sings on the chorus.
Despite its preoccupation with the grotesque and the abused, The Center Won't Hold sounds more theatrical than raw. Its forays into glossier genres give the album a cabaretlike quality. Much of the album is apocalyptic—it gets its name from a line in William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming," after all—but the doomsday imagery reaches a cartoonish peak on "Ruins." Smack at the center of the track list, "Ruins" is packed with references to ancient demons and creatures of sorrow. On the chorus, the band chants,"Eat the weak/And devour the sane," and describes smashing buildings and destroying planes, before it all culminates in a vortex of ghostly cries and warbly synths that sound straight out of a pulpy sci-fi show.
Even with its danceable grooves, anthemic hooks and subtle sense of humor, The Center Won't Hold isn't exactly a warm album. "We're not taking it easy on the audience," Tucker told the band's new label, Mom + Pop, earlier this year. It makes you wonder whom, exactly, the band sees as their audience. At the very least, its approach to dealing with present-day turmoil is a stark contrast to that of queercore legends and fellow Portland riot grrrls Team Dresch, who released their first song in over two decades earlier this year, "Your Hands My Pockets," a sunny, catchy and purely gorgeous love song. If you really wanted to, you could make a point about what it means to release such a blissful, upbeat queer love song in 2019, but "Your Hands My Pockets" is first and foremost a balm to those who need it, not a retort to those who don't get it.
The Center Won't Hold begins to feel like an album that replaces the personal with the political, though it's less a plea for change and more of a badge of suffering. Maybe Tucker and Brownstein do really feel like obscene, broken bodies dragging themselves through an obscene, broken world. They're hardly the only ones. But increasingly, it seems as though pain and torment have become synonymous with relevance and authenticity, which is not always accurate and often shitty—the only thing worse than being wounded by the world is when it asks you to perform your trauma back to it, and pretend that alone counts as progress.
It seems Sleater-Kinney is conflicted about commodifying struggle, too. The album's bright, vulnerable highlight is "Can I Go On." Over a thumping bassline, Brownstein wails the sing-along chorus: "Maybe I'm not sure I want to go on." It's one of those perfect hooks that could mean just about anything, and it'll stick in your head for days. But the best line is tucked into the second verse: "Sell our rage/Buy and trade/But we still cry for free every day."
Fair enough. Still, the demand for anguish depends on whom you're selling to.
HEAR IT: The Center Won't Hold is out Friday, Aug. 16, on Mom + Pop Music.