When Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure from the band just a few weeks ago, and cited the band’s new direction as her reason for doing so, it felt as though something had been left out of that overall timeline. This isn’t the same as ‘creative differences’ that might drive a certain member apart when they want something new; by this time, Sleater-Kinney’s new album had already been completed and announced with a set-in-stone release date. It’s a strange set of events, and one that feels uncomfortably loomed over by the idea that Sleater-Kinney, a band known for their experiments and shifts in sound and genre, had gone so far beyond their boundaries that the only suitable course of action was to get as much distance from it as possible. It’s not a pleasant thought, especially when this is a band who’ve received enormous acclaim for numerous album and were instrumental in incorporating feminist subjects and ideals into punk and indie-rock in the wake of riot grrrl, but it’s one that needs to be braced for just in case.
Granted, that might feel like a bit of an overreaction, but it’s not like The Center Won’t Hold isn’t replete with disconnects and awkward ideas that make its title seem all too appropriate. Call it creative intent if you want, but there’s a certain level of fragmentation in what Sleater-Kinney are doing here that’s not playing to their strengths, and it leads to a final product that seems to know how discordant this all is, but only highlights how little leaning into it actually does.
And to be honest, it’s pretty hit-or-miss as to whether Sleater-Kinney actually hit some kind of mark on an individual basis. Some of the blame can definitely be shouldered by St. Vincent’s production, which coats a lot of this album in a smoother electronic casing that definitely hits touchstones of modernity when paired with the strutting guitars of Hurry On Home, or sees the buzzing keys weaving with the echoing, liquid chimes of The Future Is Here, but it’s generally a toss-up all the same. With something like the title track which rides on its discordant, clanking noise serving as a substitute for melody, the obliqueness of modern indie-rock is quick to take over rather than be incorporated in any manageable way. It’s pretty telling how much more effectively and sharp Sleater-Kinney are when bringing their detailed riffing to the fore, and while there’s nothing exceptionally groundbreaking about the quick-stepping power-pop of LOVE or bounding Bad Dance, they’re still pleasantly fat-free examples of a band excelling with indie-rock sharpness. But again, that’s not a constant, and between simply bad decisions and how forgettable more listless cuts like Restless and The Dog / The Body feel, The Center Won’t Hold struggles to find any sort of workable medium.
On a more positive note, there’s a lot more to like about the overall performances, particularly in the vocals. Both Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker have a sense of authority that’s distinctive to each performer, but there’s a clarity and alchemy between the two that’s arguably the album’s best example of reaching that meshing point where it does come together. There’s a similar effect achieved in the lyrics as well; numerous sources are plucked from, but the central theme of a desire for connection is present, and even if that can occasionally bring some unwanted attention to how little of that connection is a factor in the album itself, Sleater-Kinney’s knack for prescient yet simple lyric-writing does a lot of heavy lifting. Obviously the divisions forged within the current political landscape is a constantly reverberating undertone that culminates in the aching piano-ballad Broken that directly references Christine Blasey Ford’s testifying against Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault, but there’s also a clear desire for sexual connection on Hurry On Home, and the barriers set up by modern technology on Can I Go On and The Future Is Here. It’s not exactly revelatory stuff, but there’s at least an acute edge to what Sleater-Kinney are bringing that somewhat makes up for where it’s lacking elsewhere.
But really, it’s hard to see that being a deciding factor when it comes to where The Center Won’t Hold works or not. It’s not like there’s no redeeming quality whatsoever here, but the general approach feels so confused and unable to forge some kind of cohesive structure that it really struggles to drum up any sort of consistent interest. That’s not to say that Sleater-Kinney are a bad band either, because there are moments on this very album that prove that to be demonstrably untrue, but here in particular, they’re in a situation that doesn’t really work for them and that it’s increasingly difficult for them to get out of, and that seems like a real waste when the results are this underwhelming.
For fans of: The Breeders, St. Vincent, Sleigh Bells
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Center Won’t Hold’ by Sleater-Kinney is out now on Mom + Pop Records.