Sleater-Kinney has never been a static band, modulating and complicating their punk sound ever since they focused their riot-grrrl debut into their more melodic second album, but this sounds nothing like Sleater-Kinney.
When Sleater-Kinney announced their reunion and a new album in 2014, no one could have expected how easily the late, lamented band would reassume their rightful position as the best rock outfit on the planet. Adding a brittle, jagged post-punk tone to their raucous energy, the trio retained all their old grit while complicated their subtly ever-changing sound. The result was an unmitigated triumph, a comeback that seemed too good to be true. Now, five years later, the other shoe has dropped. The Center Won’t Hold, the band’s 10th LP, arrives on the heels of drummer Janet Weiss’ abrupt departure from the group and subsequent one-sided press war of passive-aggressive comments from remaining members Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, as well as a massively overhauled sound tied to the group working with St. Vincent as a producer.
Mere seconds into the album, it’s easy to get a sense of what might have generated internal friction between members. The title track opens the record with industrial clangor, all echoing metallic percussion against a void of negative space as Brownstein’s vocals softly moan and dart amid squelches of synthesizer. Sleater-Kinney has never been a static band, modulating and complicating their punk sound ever since they focused their riot-grrrl debut into their more melodic second album, but this sounds nothing like Sleater-Kinney. The band has always opened their albums with a rush of energy, riding muscular riffs and Tucker’s paint-stripping vocals. Here, even when the guitars finally enter and bring Tucker’s screams with them, they feel like an afterthought, a wholly incongruous addition to the sluggish noise that preceded it.
St. Vincent has brought this kind of electronic sound into her own music for years, and much of The Center Won’t Hold feels directly inspired by her turn away from knotty rock to more processed, dispassionate art-pop. “Hurry on Home” sports a brittle riff that sounds like it came out of a rave electronica track from the ‘90s, albeit with all the urgency stripped away. Its lyrics, of bad romance, are delivered robotically; compare Brownstein’s dead-eyed delivery of the final refrain “You got me used to loving you” to the absolute torture of classic Sleater-Kinney torch songs like “One More Hour,” which burned with the intensity of longing. This, in comparison, sounds completely inert, trading the band’s erstwhile mastery of aching queer romance into St. Vincent’s emotionless faux-disco. “LOVE,” similarly, lacks personality, cribbing Devo’s nervy jitter for a flirtatious song that sounds postmodern and performative. Sleater-Kinney’s open-hearted, visceral attitude has always been its best attribute, helping them to stand out in the irony-poisoned ‘90s and poising them to feel fresh even today. This cooing, sardonic tone is so antithetical to their true selves that it feels like the work of a parodic band on “Portlandia” instead of one of rock’s last luminaries.
The album’s social commentary is similarly lifeless. “Can I Go On” attempts to summarize the constant anxiety of the Trump era with lines like “Everyone I know is funny/ But jokes don’t make us money/ Sell our rage, buy and trade/ But we still cry for free every day.” But there’s no bitterness in the delivery in the way that No Cities to Love brimmed with outrage at the hollowness at the heart of the Obama age. “RUINS,” the album’s longest track, is also its most stultifying, trudging through whirring synths, chanted vocals and a distended guitar whine. Tucker, singing in stop-start intonations, drops apocalyptic tidings like “Do you feast in nostalgia?/ Take pleasure from pain?/ Look out because the children/ Will learn your real name,” but these sound more like the nervous ramblings of rock stars fearing obsolescence than social commentary. “From our bones are new monsters made” only compounds that sense that a band that managed to sound as alive and original as ever on their comeback is now afraid of becoming has-beens. Combined with the asinine comments on phone addiction on “The Future Is Here,” the band has never sounded more behind the times or scolding, lacking all the fire of albums like One Beat.
There are occasional pleasures to be had here. The disco rock of “Reach Out” is compulsively listenable, and its skronky solo is a delight. The composition of “Can I Go On” is also inspired, layering an ouroboric riff over Weiss’s syncopated, collapsing pattern. But at no point does The Center Won’t Hold feel like a Sleater-Kinney album. In her memoir, Brownstein recalled her disdain with ‘90s slacker mentality, arguing forcefully that women-led bands like Sleater-Kinney didn’t have the luxury of pretending not to know how to play. Sleater-Kinney played like their lives depended on it, and that raw quality made them one of the all-time great rock bands. The band’s normally democratic sound is here sublimated to the interests of Brownstein and Annie Clark, sapping the group of its most distinctive properties. Even the softer moments, like the country twang of “Restless” or the haunted sparseness of closer “Broken,” feel put together by mixing board rather than in the recording booth. This feels like a Brownstein solo album with special guests, and that it was released under the aegis of Sleater-Kinney deals a cynical blow to one of rock’s last, pure holdouts.