Call the Doctor

Not known for its band tees.

The expectations for Sleater-Kinney’s new album The Center Won’t Hold are remarkable. They released their first album in 1995, 24 years ago. Their first classic, Call the Doctor, came out in 1996. It is rare in the world of popular music for artists to still be working at the top of their game, 24 years in. But fans still hope for greatness from Sleater-Kinney. Not nostalgia but greatness.

One reason No Cities to Love, their first album after a long hiatus, was accepted by longtime fans was that it fit well into the band’s previous discography. It was as if they’d never left. They returned older and maybe wiser, but they were still clearly Sleater-Kinney, and if they had stepped back from the last pre-hiatus album, The Woods (a culmination of their growth that saw them release their inner Led Zeppelin), they hadn’t given up, and they pulled it off without resorting to nostalgia. It has taken them four more years to release a new studio album (they worked a well-deserved live album in the meantime) and we all hope for more greatness.

But the hopes and expectations are different this time. The band brought in Annie “St. Vincent” Clark to produce, and she brings expectations of her own. Then, between the recording of the album and its release, longtime drummer Janet Weiss dropped a bombshell: she was leaving the band, citing their “new direction”. Without hearing the album, many passed negative judgement. But Janet plays on the album, so in a sense, her subsequent leaving is irrelevant, even as it makes an upcoming concert tour interesting.

While No Cities to Love sounded familiar, The Center Won’t Hold sounds like a different band. Fans have always praised S-K for their willingness to change, but they feared in advance that this new album would be a kind of change they didn’t want. Hopefully, when they finally hear it, they’ll listen with open ears, but there is no denying, The Center Won’t Hold does not sound like any other Sleater-Kinney album.

Getting the elephant out of the room, Janet Weiss’ drumming is excellent, as always, when she is given the chance. But admittedly some of the drum sounds on the album hint of drum machines; it’s not hard to imagine her turning away from this “new direction”.

The partnership of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein has always been at the band’s core, even for Janet fans like myself. There was a thrill in their early records, when the two would sing different lyrics simultaneously, leaving it to the listener to sort them out. Over time, they gradually moved away from this style, but it remained hard to separate the two within the songs they sang and played. But the difference between them stands out on The Center Won’t Hold

As I listened, I found myself tallying the Carrie songs and the Corin songs, something I had never considered doing in the past.

It’s rather like The Beatles … “There’s a Place” featured a transcendent quality based on the John/Paul partnership, but by the end of the band’s life, there were John songs and Paul songs (and George songs, and Ringo songs). Carrie and Corin remain top songwriters who clearly get a lot from working together, but here, they feel somewhat separated. (It is said that they wrote most of the songs while living in different cities, rather than together, which may reflect the finished product.)

The album kicks off with the title track, “The Center Won’t Hold”, which begins with industrial rock, as Carrie sings, “I need something ugly to put me in my place.” As a statement of purpose (this isn’t your mother’s Sleater-Kinney) it works. But then the song ends with a minute of Nirvana-sounding chords while Corin repeatedly wails “the center won’t hold” and Janet offers her first real outburst as if to remind us that mother’s S-K is still with us.

And that S-K we know pops up occasionally. But Janet’s drumming is mostly subdued, Corin doesn’t often break out her ear-shattering vocals, and Carrie offers few examples of her idiosyncratic, gnarly guitar sounds. This isn’t worse, but it is different, and it challenges fans who are perhaps more invested in nostalgia than they realize.

The lyrics reference the current state of affairs in the US, usually taking a subtle approach but getting specific in the album closer, “Broken”, a torch song (written by Carrie, sung by Corin) that cites the hearings to make Brett Kavanaugh a Supreme Court judge, when Christine Blasey Ford offered testimony of his assault of her:

She, she, she stood up for us

When she testified

Me, me too

My body cried out when she spoke those lines

This is something Sleater-Kinney has always done well (think “Sympathy”, from their post-9/11 album One Beat: “When the moment strikes, It takes you by surprise and leaves you naked in the face of death and life”). They can make the personal into something universal. “One More Hour” is the greatest of all break-up songs, whether you know the autobiographical roots or not.

Two songs stand out for their accompanying videos. “Hurry on Home” has a great, more controlled Janet drumming and has a weird lyrics video from Miranda July that uses phone texting to show the lyrics while inserting an obsession with butts into the mix. It’s a pop song, but one that could have fit easily into one of the band’s more pop-oriented albums, and the lyrics (“You got me used to loving you”) are reminiscent of one of Adele’s breakup songs. 

The most interesting video is for “Love”, where Carrie offers a short history of the band and her friendship with Corin. The video features Polaroids submitted by fans of themselves, effectively turning the love outwards towards those fans. It is a touching moment, made more so in comparison to the brilliant “Entertain” from The Woods, where Carrie scarily screams “all you want is entertainment, rip me open”. 

Ultimately, we may not know just how good The Center Won’t Hold is until later in Sleater-Kinney’s career. I want to see these new songs live, mixed in with older classics, and to see how they work with a new drummer.

I want to check in a few albums down the road when it will be clearer whether The Center Won’t Hold began a new, positive, direction for the band or marked a dead end. It’s an album where “I’m not sure I wanna go on at all” co-exists with “Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end”.

No Cities to Love fit instantly into the great catalogue of Sleater-Kinney. I need time to decide if The Center Won’t Hold fits, or even if it should.

Photograph courtesy of Frances. Published under a Creative Commons license.