There’s a clear case to be made that the best way to hear music is, simply, to listen. Discard expectations; consume the sound coming from the speaker; note how you feel. The end. Another way is to place it in its context: Learn about its creators, its genre, its lineage, what it’s attempting, what it’s implying. The divide between those two ways of hearing may seem stark—after all, isn’t it purest to teach the text, separate the art and the artist, forget authorial intention, and so on? Sleater-Kinney’s new album shows the inevitability, and the helpfulness, of relating what’s outside the music to what’s inside it.
The punk band’s ninth studio album is also its second one since ending a 10-year hiatus in 2015 with the acclaimed No Cities to Love. Sleater-Kinney’s music—flowing from the ’90s riot-grrrl scene and since pivotal in the world of indie rock—has been defined by a tense and wild interplay between the singer-guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and the drummer Janet Weiss. Those three women have had not only a sound but also a social significance, upholding female rage—and vulnerability, and politics—in rock. The new album, The Center Won’t Hold, was produced by Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, the experimental guitar-pop wizard of 2000s cult fame. Their collaboration built positive buzz, but a month and a half before the album’s release, a dissonant chord sounded. Weiss announced that she was leaving Sleater-Kinney, writing, “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.”
Theoretically, this turn of events shouldn’t really affect the listening experience. Weiss played on and helped write The Center Won’t Hold, making it a full-fledged, three-member Sleater-Kinney affair. There’s a lot to recommend it—and a lot that, if you didn’t know the backstory, wouldn’t necessarily suggest a dramatic “new direction.” The opener plays like a summoning-circle rite that eventually explodes into a mosh pit, full of the terror and fury that the band is known for. There are pleasing but pained sing-alongs in the vein of Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 classic “Modern Girl.” The political and personal swirl together, including on the closer “Broken,” a tremendous #MeToo ballad—somehow restrained yet raw—about relating to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh.
But Sleater-Kinney’s best music inspires obsession and abandon by deploying a logic that’s shared between only the band members. The Center Won’t Hold has sharp hooks and striking lyrics and monstrous vocals—yet the trademark depth and mystery aren’t there. Solidly fine albums like this, decades into a band’s career, inspire reflexive sighs about how musicians just lose “it”—some unnameable magic—over time. That’s always simplistic. While knowing why Weiss left is impossible, her story can’t help but inspire a certain kind of scrutiny: It’s natural now to pay special attention to the drums. Doing so does, indeed, indicate what has changed and what could change, for the better, next time.
Though Weiss always performed her primary job of keeping time, she did so with a varmint-in-a-trap kind of energy: twitching, thrashing, and threatening to—or more than threatening to—suddenly break away and force the rest of the band to chase her. On The Center Won’t Hold, by contrast, she’s largely playing dance music, and not in the live-wire, improvisatory tradition of jazz or James Brown. Rather, this is electro-disco-derived coronary thump, satisfying but predictable. Weiss does land moments of exciting divergence—one micro-highlight is a BAM BAM BAM punctuating “Hurry on Home”—but generally this album feels like it was plotted out on graph paper.
Which is also the sense one gets listening to the music of St. Vincent, a fearsome sonic sculptor, poet, and aesthetic omnivore who, for all her weirdness, makes music with a modular sensibility. You can see the seams and sutures in her music; that’s almost the point. She and Sleater-Kinney wanted to make a gritty, industrial-sounding record, and they succeeded at that: Guitars wheeze, drums evoke sheet metal, and the grouchy spirit of Trent Reznor flows throughout. But as with Nine Inch Nails, as with St. Vincent, it’s rock and roll on train tracks. The verses might carry loads of varying heaviness, but there’s never a chance of derailing.
It’d be silly, however, to overly ascribe the sound of The Center Won’t Hold to Clark, rather than to the three women who wrote and performed the songs. Brownstein told The Guardian that she wanted to create a tune like Rihanna’s “Stay,” and while that statement could mean a lot of things—apparently the slow ache of “Broken” is one result—it hints at an interest in speaking to a broader audience. Perhaps accordingly, there are some wonderful choruses: Depeche Mode silky-scary croons on “Reach Out”; Iggy Pop sea-shanty fun on “Bad Dance”; standing-on-the-bar sing-alongs in “The Dog / The Body.” Accusing a rock band of going pop is one of the most tired criticisms that exists, but it’s hard to avoid the thought here. It’s also not a criticism. Catchy songs are effective songs.
To say Sleater-Kinney has discarded its essence would be wrong, too. Tucker’s bellows and Brownstein’s hisses are used to powerful ends, addressing the anxiety and defiance of women aging in the spotlight, the power dynamics of sex, the malaise of living in the time of push notifications about a president who puts kids in cages. The album’s grand motif is the body, which is treated as a literal thing—see the flesh-baring art for the lead single—and as a metaphor for a relationship, a band, and a country. “The center won’t hold!”; “Disconnect me from my bones”; “From our bones a new monster’s made”: These are lyrics about dissolution. The drama before the album’s arrival fits all too well with them, but the music’s flaws suggest a counterintuitive way for rattled bodies—including rock duos that used to be trios—to gel again: Try to embrace the chaos.