Sleater-Kinney Pick up the Pieces as Things Fall Apart on ‘The Center Won’t Hold’
Olympia, Washington’s Sleater-Kinney have long been a revered indie rock band. As a power trio informed by the riot grrrl movement, they’ve incorportated gnarled guitars and pounding drums with sung or shouted vocals whose lyrics have frequently exhibited a feminist or otherwise political bend. On “The Center Won’t Hold,” the band’s ninth studio album, which comes after their hiatus-ending “No Cities to Love,” Sleater-Kinney have certainly altered the formula, but kept a hint of familiarity. As a St. Vincent-produced affair, there are sleek production techniques, synthesizers, and programmed drums accompanying more restrained guitar and drum work. The results are somewhat mixed, but there are still lines that cut to the core — and some interesting sonic experimentation to boot.
The album draws its name from William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a religious-themed apocalyptic poem where “things fall apart.” As such, “The Center Won’t Hold” is Sleater-Kinney’s first album after the tumultuous 2016 presidential election. It is thusly informed by political dissatisfaction, and monsters coming to life before your eyes, especially in songs like “RUINS,” which directly deals with political demagoguery in the age of a Trump administration. It’s an album concerned with generalized tension, desire, listlessness, loneliness in the digital age, and fighting to exist. Although, the album’s often dark pop aesthetic has also led to things falling apart internally, with the departure of Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss — drummer and member of the band since 1996. She left in July with a tweet noting the band is “heading in a new direction,” leaving Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker as the band’s remaining members.
That new direction starts off with the title track, “The Center Won’t Hold,” an industrial-influenced, dark pop song that seems equally informed by St. Vincent’s “Masseduction” and Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral.” There’s also a hint of raw vocalizing that you hear from bands like Savages present. The dirge starts out slow and suspenseful, with metallic clanging culminating in an explosive, noisy guitar break at the end. As an opener, it sets the stage for a different Sleater-Kinney, but still leaves things pretty open-ended.
“Hurry on Home” is a song about a lusty rendezvous. There’s thick and dirty bass. The atmosphere is still in the moodier pop realm — but gone are the loud, guitar-propelled vocals of previous records. They’ve been replaced by a new wave, synth-pop sound that manages on its own terms. Backing choral and vocal swells peppered throughout certainly feel like a St. Vincent production technique, and other yelps and vocalizations in the background have an attitude of their own.
“Reach Out” deals with the listlessness and a degree of political dissatisfaction hinted at earlier. It’s a track that’s mostly chorus and feels primarily situated as a guitar-themed new wave song with swirling synth textures tucked beneath the lyrics, “Reach out, touch me, I’m stuck on the edge / Reach out, darkness is winning again / Reach out and see me, I’m losing my head / Reach out, I can’t fight without you, my friend.”
“Can I Go On” is easily one of the best songs on the album. By this point, listeners have likely relinquished any anticipation of “classic” Sleater-Kinney, and have opened themselves to what this new iteration has to offer. “Can I Go On” is a pop foray about a gnawing feeling of disconnectedness in the digital age. The slight distortion on verse vocals is another St. Vincent hallmark, and the chorus sing-along feels right, especially with lyrics that cut to the heart. The song is in the same lyrical realm as later track “The Future is Here,” which begins with, “I start my days on a tiny screen,” and finishes with, “I end my days on a tiny screen.”
Songs like “Restless” and “The Dog / The Body” incorporate more melodic indie rock, and are pleasant reprieves. The latter starts with slow ambience and hushed vocals, before drums fill into a smooth, rocking verse, and eventual anthemic chorus which deals with romantic isolation. “RUINS” references Trump in thinly-veiled terms — describing a monster that comes in the night, “eat[s] the weak,” “feast[s] on nostalgia,” and takes “pleasure from pain.” The tempo and textures don’t really help the track shine, but conceptually and lyrically, there’s a lot to unpack.
“Love” is a guitar-driven indie pop song that opens with an idiosyncratic guitar riff that could easily be mistaken for a Devo melody. The song tells the fledgling story of Sleater-Kinney, and is a love letter to the early years of the band. It describes starting in a basement, sleeping in a van, and losing a little bit of money on tour. The final verse sets the stage for the future: “Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end / But fighting is the fuel and anger is a friend / There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene / Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen.”
“Bad Dance,” quite unfortunately, is a little too kitschy. It’s a dark, dystopian track that ends up sounding less like the NIN and Savages-tinged opener and more like something that would end up next to the “Monster Mash” on a Halloween playlist. It’s a somewhat overly theatrical affair as the chorus kicks, “And if the world is ending now / Then let’s dance the bad dance / We’ve been rehearsing our whole lives.”
“Broken” is a bit reserved and downtempo as a closer. It’s a slow piano-ballad with a touch of slide guitar. The lyrics allude to the Me Too movement and a feeling of “breaking inside” when hearing heartwrenching narratives. Brownstein plays soft elegiac piano as Tucker croons, “she stood up for us / When she testified / Me, me too / My body cried out when she spoke those lines.”
Overall, the album juts in quite a few different sonic directions, none of them too familiar with Sleater-Kinney’s discography. Some of the pop experimentation plays out well, especially on tracks like “Can I Go On” or the slightly more familiar “Restless.” “Hurry on Home” works decently as a single, and “Reach Out” feels placed right, early on in the record. There are certainly misses, especially with songs like “Bad Dance.” The production can often get in the way as well, with an overconcern for synth texture and atmosphere, or vocals elevated too high over guitars. The album really shines when it isn’t preoccupied with the newly acquired pop paradigm (or any paradigm, for that matter) and allows songs to take their own shape — which is, ideally, what’s meant to be freeing about heading in a new direction. Lyrical themes of political dissatisfaction, isolation, and self-doubt are certainly relatable — and there are some pretty solid verses and choruses that are easy to latch onto. However, if this is truly just the beginning of new territory for Sleater-Kinney, it’ll be interesting to see the shape of things to come.
“The Center Won’t Hold” is available Aug. 16 on Apple Music.