Sleater-Kinney, Zen Rockers

The band's first album in nearly a decade, No Cities to Love, furiously preaches a message about contentment.

To promote their new album, No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney released a video of various celebrities singing along to the title track. It’s a funny clip, and not just because there are funny people—Sarah Silverman, Andy Samberg, and Fred Armisen, among others—in it. The song is all guitar lines shooting off at gnarly angles, stop-start drum blasts, and obtuse lyrics delivered too herky-jerkily to be very hummable. Try to sing it acapella, as the people in the video do, and you end up looking kind of insane.

But that very fact is why the clip is a perfect, almost poignant introduction to Sleater-Kinney’s eighth record. After breaking up in the mid-aughts, the members of the Portland-based trio pursued second careers more successful than most peoples' first ones—the TV show Portlandia for Carrie Brownstein; a new and acclaimed eponymous band for Corin Tucker; gigs with Stephen Malkmus, Quasi, and the Shins for Janet Weiss; and a fantastic album as Wild Flag for both Brownstein and Weiss. Now they've gotten back together to release a set of intricate, rollicking songs that, taken together, double as a philosophical treatise—one whose adherents look a lot like the folks in that promotional video: headphones on, finding joy in their own nonsense.

Sleater-Kinney first made their name as part of the female-led ‘90s punk wave known as Riot Grrrl, though over the years their renown came to transcend any particular scene or movement. The band's sound is singular, using the sonic language of classic rock and punk and the spit-flinging intensity of its two vocalists to sell brainy, worked-over lyrics and song structures. In the past they put politics front and center, often by explicitly attacking the idea that both rock music and the world should be run by men.

At first listen, though, politics seem almost entirely absent from No Cities to Love. That's "almost" because the opening track, "Price Tag," reads like a classic punk salvo against capitalism. As a grim note pattern grinds like gears under seesawing, vertigo-inducing chords, the lyrics tell of a worker’s subsistence struggle: a 9 a.m. clock-in, a deadening shelf-stocking gig, the dreadful feeling of falling behind even as society promises that hard work leads to a better life. The song's more than a 2015 "Working Class Hero," though—it's an introduction to the album’s central concern, the hamster wheel of human desire:

In the market
The kids are starving
They reach for the good stuff

Let’s stay off label
Just till we’re able
To save a little up

The next big win
The ship comes in
No more worry for us

Just keep moving
The wheels keep turning
It’s time to go pay up

The band explores the notion of striving in vain more forcefully, and more abstractly, as No Cities to Love goes on. On track after track, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker sing of desire as a villain, wearing down the songs’ narrators who're caught up pursuing material goods, social achievements, fame, influence, and even companionship. “Gimme Love” might be the cleverest execution of the theme, with the song’s title delivered in staccato bursts followed by a ragged-throated response—“nev-aaar enough!”—as a high, singsongy guitar riff repeats like a taunt.

If this all sounds like a downer, know Sleater-Kinney’s dissing desire in hopes of replacing it with something better. That’s clear on the title track, when Brownstein, in a noir-ish deadpan, gives the entire human experience a lovely, terrifying synopsis: “Atomic tourist: a life in search of power.” After a few renditions of a devil-fingers-in-the-air chorus, the percussion drops out, and there’s clarity—“Took so long for me to see / Hope’s a burden or it sets you free.” It’s a beautiful moment, one that gives meaning to other lyrics on the album about the virtues of stillness, of genuine human bonds, and of rock music. The most stunning turn comes on “No Anthems,” when the lament of the first chorus—"I’m not the anthem / I once was an anthem / I sang the song of me”—gets recast, musically and lyrically, as a rallying call:

I want an anthem
A singular anthem
An answer and a force
To feel rhythm in silence
A weapon, not violence
A power, power source

If that power source exists, it’s in art like Sleater-Kinney’s. Two decades into their career, few bands are making rock this simultaneously inviting and strange, reflecting the members' own idiosyncratic vision rather than any broader trends. “There's just such a singular aspect to this band,” Tucker recently told NPR when asked about Sleater-Kinney’s sonic influences. “We're not porous, we're not letting a lot of outside things in.” By standing apart, by making their own kind of noise, they've put forward a worldview that perhaps comes easier with age, that's been preached by religions for centuries, and that seems more radical than ever in the modern world—you don't have to strive, you just have to be.