Review Summary: Tired of being told that this should be the end
As prophesized by the title, to an extent which even surprised members of the band, the center did not hold. The anticipation of a new Sleater-Kinney album and the subsequent promotional cycle has been mired with the sudden departure of virtuoso drummer Janet Weiss, who’s cited the new direction of the band as the reason for moving on with her career. Not only has this unexpected break put ”The Center Won’t Hold” in the role of the culprit by fans, but it also speaks to a more complicated hurt. Looking away from the ridiculous micro-analysis of ’what really had happened’ and whether or not Annie Clark is the devil to indie-rockers, there is no doubt that S-K held a particular cultural significance in 2019: Widely known for being a vigorously consistent and egalitarian trio, as well as just being decidedly themselves (no other rock band fused guitars, drums and vocals the way they did), the group had become an anomaly of three women working together for over 20 years, revving pathos, fury and purpose along the way. In a time defined by uncertainty and huge shifts, S-K, as we knew them, were a constant in music.
But unlike tightening the screws of a well-worn formula with ”No Cities to Love”, ’The Center Won’t Hold’ is a left turn that leaves the fundament and aesthetic in shambles. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker have spoken recently about the want for challenging themselves, of being different people from who they were several years ago and entering ’a mid-period’ of the band. Hence, it’s not surprising that the album feels like a transitory one, a theatrical tour of everything between Depeche Mode (Reach Out), early-PJ Harvey freak-outs (title track), faux-pop anthems (Can I Go On?) and Rihanna-inspired piano ballads (Broken). Oh, and Annie Clark definitely leaves her imprint of off-kilter genre tropes. No doubt, the first listen will weird out a lot of fans. Choosing to opt-out might be tempting, but ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ turns out to be not only one of the band’s most interesting albums, but, strangely enough, an affirmation of the spirit that’s guided their output thus far.
Squabbles of ‘selling out’ is bound to occur in the indie-rock community (a story S-K have been familiar with every independent label change), but it takes audacity and risk-taking to make a move such as this album in a music landscape content and more than willing to discourage it. The intermingling of indie-rock and pop-structures might spark red flags, but no sing-a-long can dissolve the pathos in Carrie and Corin’s deliveries, and their lyrics are too direct - too jagged and frustrated - to actually be slick. Instead, the structures of pop become a vehicle for catharsis on an otherwise dark album. On one hand, there are tracks mirroring the everyday ennui and depression (The Future is Here), but then there is “LOVE”, an ode to the band’s journey that feels musically like it’s too much, but when Corin Tucker shouts “Love!” you know it to be a kind of sincerity that makes it one of the highlights. It’s the “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun” of the decade.
Love is the theme here, a refuge and weapon to the zeitgeist the album’s released within. There’s an undoubtedly characteristic type of politics the band utilizes on certain tracks here, emphasizing womanly desires and the struggles against power and ageism in a society bent on removing agency and attention from those sources. It isn’t unlike the sentiments echoed throughout their career, even before Weiss became an integral part of the group. The character in the huge ‘Hurry on Home’ is a writhing, desperate body seeking contact. The case of Brett Kavanaugh on the affecting ‘Broken’ is about the struggle of speaking truth to power on behalf of abused bodies, an emotional reminder of MeToo’s significance for survivors. And in the gleefully grim ‘Can I Go On?’ Corin shivers with arousal and fear with the duplicitous line “My desire is contagious”. As with every S-K album, the subjects pack a punch in how deftly the words and deliveries straddle the line between emotional directness and multiplicity; some things should be unmistakable, other parts contain layers of understanding.
That being said, a noticeable lack on this album is the presence of Janet’s bombastic drums, not really a focal point the way they were before and sometimes even resembling loop-machines. It shows a lack of engagement, or perhaps involvement, on her part? Does it? It’s hard to tell anything for sure, aside from the group seemingly disagreeing on the direction of the album. It is, in any case, no testament to the tools and power that Janet wields at her best, unlike a lot of genuinely inventive and impressive guitar/vocal work the rest of the band pushes itself toward here.
Despite the break, which must’ve dealt a bigger blow to the band members than any fan, Carrie and Corin still seem adamant on staying the course, promoting the album as usual and touring with dedication. By all indications, they’re moving onward as a band. It says something vital about the stamina and will the remaining, instigating figures have for what they are doing and have been doing all these years. I think it comes from the same place it always did, and which birthed the band. ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ is not the rock and roll you’re used to, and you might not take the leap, either. That’s fine; Sleater-Kinney seems to be alive and kicking because its members are willing to take risks based on their own restlessness.