The Band That Meant Too Much

Sleater-Kinney has long symbolized a feminist utopia. What happens when things fall apart?

Collage featuring Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nikko LaMere via BT PR, Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the New Yorker and Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella.

In its quarter-century life span, Sleater-Kinney always has been a band that stood for something. Not just in fighting for its feminist values, though of course it does that. But in the sense that the Portland, Oregon–based trio’s always seemed like a metaphor as much as a band, even though it definitely is a band. (As Greil Marcus famously and accurately declared in Time in 2001, “America’s best rock band.”) Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s voices and guitars and Janet Weiss’ drums have interacted like equals who didn’t have to give up any of their individuality to merge into a greater whole. Sleater-Kinney has been a sound that preserved the full humanity of three women making songs about the forces that want to deny or defile their humanity. It’s music that sounds like the world it dreams of building. This isn’t accidental, of course. It was the watchword of the post-punk DIY world the band came out of, and the riot grrrl subset in particular, that your ideals should be mirrored in the process and conditions of making your art, as well as in the art itself. But Sleater-Kinney became too good, too big, too dazzling to answer to that theoretical explanation. It was like that idea had burst through a rip in space-time and fully incarnated itself as these three people and their music. As if the word had been made flesh, to borrow a phrase from a different tradition that seems apt enough because, for a lot of fans, loving Sleater-Kinney became a kind of religion.

But the danger of your band becoming a religion is that it becomes possible to blaspheme against it. And that’s how a certain portion of the faithful are reacting to the band’s new record, The Center Won’t Hold. First, because it brought in a producer, Annie Clark aka St. Vincent, as an unofficial fourth member, to sculpt the album’s sound in ways Sleater-Kinney’d never explored. And second, because a few weeks before its release this week, drummer Janet Weiss announced that the group “is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.” Tucker and Brownstein have said that as far as they’d known, Weiss was enthusiastic about the album—which is less drum-heavy than past albums, for sure—and that she was the one who’d first proposed combining with Clark.

But some fans accuse Brownstein—who’s become more broadly famous than the rest of the band because of her TV comedy show Portlandia—and Clark, who dated Brownstein for a while in the past, of staging a takeover. Clark’s been referred to as “the Yoko Ono” of Sleater-Kinney—staggeringly, deploying one of the most misogynistic rock myths against rock’s flagship feminist band—or as the Brian Eno to Brownstein’s David Byrne, a partnership often blamed for alienating the other Talking Heads in the early 1980s. The entire drama makes it difficult to hear The Center Won’t Hold clearly, and to take the measure of its shifts in style. (I should acknowledge here that Janet Weiss this week also had to cancel a tour by her other terrific band, Quasi, due to injuries sustained in a “scary” car accident. That’s a lot of hardship in a short period—here’s to a swift and complete recovery.)

It’s not like fans haven’t been here before. Way back when, Weiss joined the group only with its third album, Dig Me Out. For some years (including the previous Call the Doctor, which I love) it was just Tucker and Brownstein and various guest drummers, and now it apparently will be again. However, there’s no denying that Weiss’ singular prowess focused and fueled what the band became from there on. Also, S-K albums have veered around stylistically before—I can remember, just barely now, how off-putting I found the more Zeppelin-jam–like parts of 2005’s The Woods at first, before coming around to its bruising sweetness. It was after that album that the band’s last high drama took place, when Brownstein, by her own account, became too mentally and physically exhausted to go on and the trio went into a decadelong hiatus until 2015’s recharged No Cities to Love, which some days feels like my favorite of their records. I think all the time about what Tucker calls for in “No Anthems”—“To feel rhythm in silence, a weapon, not violence/ Power, power, source.”

Compared with The Woods, it’s a lot easier for me to adapt to the more synth-rock and singer-songwritery aspects of The Center Won’t Hold. Yes, it holds back most of the time (not always) on that most familiar Sleater-Kinney feeling, of an electrified-wire whirling-dervish music lifting you out of your body into a cyclone of anger and empathy. Like most fans, I come to any S-K album craving a hit of that. But given that the band’s doled out that high on roughly eight albums and in countless live shows, anyone who wants it knows where to get it, and its scarcity here is obviously a conscious choice. I’d suggest allowing the music time to make its reasons apparent. Especially since it also doesn’t sound particularly like any St. Vincent record.

The “center” of the title—from the same apocalyptic 1919 W.B. Yeats poem that (along with the Chinua Achebe novel) gave the Roots their 1999 album name Things Fall Apart—has several senses. In many of these songs, the narrators feel their own psychic centers threatening to disintegrate under some kind of pressure. The titles tell the tale: “Can I Go On,” “Restless,” “Ruins,” “Broken.” Most listeners in America in 2019 will not have trouble guessing which ambient toxicity a band like Sleater-Kinney has in mind. In fact, this record is the most extended portrait I’ve heard yet of the emotional shitscape of the Trump era, full stop. “Never have I felt so goddamn lost and alone,” Tucker declares on “The Future Is Here,” her voice shivering at the very bottom of its range and then rising with each word to peak with a blues howl. There are few singers in the world who can force you to feel exactly what they’re feeling the way Corin Tucker can when she chooses. However, I think the other center in the title is the creature in the White House, and the reason for changing the Yeats line from “the center cannot hold” to “the center won’t hold” is to offer a note of determined optimism: Yeah, it’s bad, but it won’t last. But then, of course, the title took on a third meaning after Weiss left. Onstage, Weiss’ drum kit was usually set up between the two singers, making her literally the physical center of the band. And it turned out that center wouldn’t hold. Brownstein joked sadly to the New York Times that they should have called the album Let’s Stay Together.

The irony of this—exactly the kind of irony that seeks out Sleater-Kinney, the band that meant too much—is that more explicitly than ever, the antidote that The Center Won’t Hold offers to the social and personal darkness that permeates it is … Sleater-Kinney. That’s literally true on the song “Love,” in which Brownstein endearingly recounts the band’s origin story, of her becoming a fan of Tucker’s early band Heavens to Betsy, with plays on old album titles (and Virginia Woolf) —“Heard you in my headphones, slipped you my address/ Call the doctor, dig me outta this mess/ Tuned it down to C, turn the amp to 10/ A basement of our own, a mission to begin”—and a celebration of its superpowers: “Fighting is the fuel and anger is a friend.” But mutual support as the means to survival arises all over, as Tucker sings after the “lost and alone” line in “The Future Is Here”: “I need you more than I ever have/ Because the future’s here and we can’t go back.” Or on the almost Madonna-like, frigid-disco workout “Reach Out”: “Reach out, I can’t fight without you, my friend.” Or on the beguilingly stripped-back, late-’90s-S-K–style “Restless”—“I’ve learned to love the ugliest things/ Like you and me, and me and you/ And me.”

In reality, Tucker might be directing these sentiments to her husband, her kids, other friends, or Betty White, how should I know. But the only relationship that matters when I’m listening to this music is Sleater-Kinney’s to Sleater-Kinney, which in that moment is simultaneously their listeners’ passion for anyone and anything we may love.

On a couple of tracks, though, Brownstein has a less S-K-centric answer, one straight out of the teaches of Peaches, i.e., “Fuck the Pain Away.” It’s a testament to the fact that the often compulsively cerebral Brownstein has become more open about her sexuality since writing about it in her 2015 memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and to the radicalism of a woman in her mid-40s insisting on her right to pleasure, celebrating her queer female body, as a rebuke to those who would conceal or cage or violate it. “Hurry on Home” manages to triangulate between robust horniness and perhaps unhealthy attachment issues in provocative ways—especially when taken in via the hilarious text-messaging lyric video directed by Miranda July. “Bad Dance,” S-K’s stab at an answer song to Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends,” lands in a more awkward in-between place, and not just because its title phrase sounds too much like “Batdance.” It’s the one song that lives up to St. Vincent–phobics’ worst fears about this album. But that’s a minor misstep. On “The Dog/The Body,” Brownstein explores the abjection of love in ways that live up to the S-K standard of complexity, but also manages to break into a big singalong rock-radio chorus worthy of, say, Dexys Midnight Runners.

Rather than the malign influence of Annie Clark, what makes The Center Won’t Hold most unlike other S-K albums is that the songs weren’t written by Tucker and Brownstein putting their heads and guitars together in the same room and practically tearing the sounds and ideas out of each other in real time. This time, they were in separate places and making more-or-less complete demos for the others to enhance or alter. So the songs are more univocal than doubleheaded, both in structure and in mood. Whether by design or instinct, each songwriter on her own seems to reach back to her ’80s youth, with Brownstein adopting a Cyndi Lauper yip in places and Tucker channeling some Kate Bush in her rawer The Dreaming mode, in addition to that Madonna callback and some general synth-pop and industrial-bed tracks. It was all suitable grist for Clark’s synth treatments and digital inversions, but more significantly, it was fitting for—or perhaps helped motivate—the themes of isolation and yearning that occupy so many of the songs. The process and the outcome remain unified, but rather than musically instantiating the utopia it seeks, this time S-K was reflecting back the living dystopia surrounding it.

Whatever the band’s future, I do hope Tucker and Brownstein return to their usual collaborative approach. But one of the yields here is the extraordinary closing track, “Broken,” which would be difficult to imagine on any other S-K album. It’s a slow piano torch song that seems to find Tucker describing her mind state—and much of the nation’s—while viewing Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault accusations during conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “My body cried out when she spoke those lines,” Tucker sings. “I’m breaking in two, never feeling all right … ’cause I’m broken inside.” It’s arranged and delivered like an 11 o’clock number, the spotlight diva turn that precedes the climax of a stage musical. As a topical song, it’s a remarkable document of a moment and of a despair shared on a mass scale, far truer to the tone of the event than the righteously angry Saturday Night Live sketches that followed. But as a Sleater-Kinney song, it’s also unlike any other, a coiling exposure of emotion rather than a spiraling expression of it. It’s a bold gesture musically, finally giving Tucker’s vocal riches an uncluttered showcase, heedless of any leftover punk orthodoxies, much as The Woods allowed Brownstein at last to reap her guitar-hero credentials in full—and also gave her a signature ballad, the liltingly ambiguous “Modern Girl,” which might be the nearest precedent to “Broken.” But this one isn’t going to be a live singalong staple. “Broken” is too immensely sad a song. It’s also a generous gift.

As so many blasphemies are. As even the most staunch disciples of a freethinking band like Sleater-Kinney ought to know. Given some of the side eye at screens and social media on this album, I can’t help wondering if S-K choosing this juncture to buck fans’ expectations has a subtle political subtext. Many of their followers are too young to remember all the times the band faced accusations of apostasy for making songs that were too catchy, or for moving from one tiny indie label to a slightly larger one, or for working with one producer or another, etc., etc. But Brownstein and Tucker know how easily people who should be allies can turn on each other over the slightest deviance from approved dogma. How much is the minicontroversy surrounding this album’s supposed straying a microcosm of what Democrats and progressives go through daily online and will go through in the next year, with potentially disastrous consequences? No doubt I’m taking that analogy too far. Sometimes a band is just a band, an album just an album, a cigar just a cigar. Of course. But no. Not Sleater-Kinney. Power, power, source.

Sleater-Kinney The Center Won't Hold vinyl sleeve
Mom + Pop Music

The Center Won’t Hold

The new album from Sleater-Kinney.