Presented as a splintered conversation on America’s political and social climate, Sleater-Kinney’s tenth studio album The Center Won’t Hold is a fractured masterpiece. Having worked with producer Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and weathered the recent departure of drummer Jannet Weiss’, The Center Won’t Hold is a tumultuous record where emotional tempests surge throughout.
Since their surprise reunion in 2015, the world has changed for Sleater-Kinney: a reality TV host – promoted to power through xenophobic, misogynistic, racist rhetoric – has taken centre stage at The White House and, as a band, they have not yet had the chance to make their own sonic statement. With its industrial and sparse percussion, title track and album opener “The Center Won’t Hold” immediately inserts us in to a desolate dystopia. With a lack of growling guitar riffs, this is a far cry from the Sleater-Kinney we know and love yet, Carrie Brownstein’s lyrics cleverly subvert our expectations and realities: “I need something holy / Give me a little taste/ I need something muddy / To cover up the stain”. Using its title as its hook, this mantra-like opener establishes an intense atmosphere begging to break.
However, thankfully, through their visceral songwriting and sonic palette Sleater-Kinney are here to disarm any ill intentions. Lead single “Hurry On Home”, with its restless guitars and urgent lyrics, is a gut punch akin to “Dig Me Out”. At times this album feels very much conversational, with a dialogue between Brownstein and Corin Tucker running throughout. Perhaps it might be that much of the album was written separately rather in the room together. Tucker’s pulsing pop anthem “Reach Out” is an emotive cry set to be a new live staple: “Reach out the darkness is winning again / Reach out I can’t fight without you my friend”. Yet, at times, it seems as though Brownstein and Tucker are following different narrative paths and, despite having similar messages, tracks like “Restless” seem almost ballad-like (“My heart wants the ugliest things”) while “The Future Is Here” is an emotive call to arms: “I need you more than I ever have / Coz the future’s here and I can’t go back”.
With the news that Annie Clark would be producing this record in its entirety, any progress on The Center Won’t Hold has been closely monitored. Stylistically, this record is a strikingly bold step for the band and it is impossible not to feel Clark’s influence. However despite heading in multiple directions and, having cited the band’s “new direction” as her reason for leaving, Janet Weiss’ drumming provides a steady foundation. This album is definitely guitar-driven but with added synthetic touches Sleater-Kinney are more dynamic than ever. The drum machine driven track “LOVE” shows a nerve-twitchingly softer side to Brownstein: “We can be young and we can be old / As long as we have each other to hold”. Similarly, the syncopated and “Can I Go On” has disco breaks and big guitar lines inline with St. Vincent’s “Cruel”.
Having formed 25 years ago, The Center Won’t Hold marks a milestone for Sleater-Kinney and this record has been made to kick start positive change. With a new chapter beginning for the band, they have provided the perfect platform for future exploration and experimentation. “As women who are not in our 30s anymore,” states Brownstein, “there’s this idea that sonically you’re supposed to contract after a while, and make things that are more appeasing or quieter”. Sleater-Kinney are not going anywhere quietly.