Updated: Feb 28, 2020
"By all accounts, The Center Won’t Hold had the potential to be a gargantuan entry into Sleater-Kinney’s near-perfect catalogue, but the album turned out to be a flimsy, forgettable record that has fulfilled the prophecy of its title." KARA GORDON reviews the iconic band's ninth record.
Sleater-Kinney has always been a band that has unfolded new musical pathways for themselves with each album. Their ninth, The Center Won’t Hold, released this month after a fraught promotional cycle— a split fan reaction to the new singles, a lukewarm Late Night performance, and, most jolting, the sudden departure of esteemed drummer Janet Weiss after 23 years in the band's lineup— is no different. Here, they’ve traded in the raw guitars-and-drums ethos of their previous efforts for a slick, goth-y pop sound under the wing of producer St. Vincent. By all accounts, The Center Won’t Hold had the potential to be a gargantuan entry into Sleater-Kinney’s near-perfect catalogue, but the album turned out to be a flimsy, forgettable record that has fulfilled the prophecy of its title.
In interviews leading up to the record’s release, the members— particularly guitarist/singer Carrie Brownstein, who has a reputation for slipping verbose intellectual jargon into rock magazine interviews— spoke about the themes present on the album: the feelings of isolation that pervade this era, a near-dystopian mistrust in familiar institutions, and the aging body as a canvas for resistance. This set up the expectation for a gripping, cerebral album that would see Sleater-Kinney unravel the personal and political turmoils of our day. When the album arrived, however, it was filled with pithy, obvious lyrics like “Everyone I know is tired/Everyone I know is wired to machines.” The lack of lyrical depth is perhaps the album’s greatest flaw; a major disappointment from a band whose previous work contains some of the most gutting lyrics in rock music. Brownstein’s descriptions of the songs in interviews are more compelling and eloquent than the songs themselves, which rely on tired lyrical cliches that lack bite. Of “Can I Go On,” which features the most trite lyrics on the album, Brownstein said: “In this song, a woman’s desire is used against her, so she turns it into a sinister infectiousness. The narrator finds herself on the brink of self-annihilation, grappling with the paradox of an internal darkness at odds with the pressure to outwardly perform modes of joy, relatability, and likability.” While this narrative sounds multifaceted and urgent, the verses of the finished product use grade-school rhymes to deliver a portrait of bleak modern life that has all of the common denominator “I Need Coffee” relatability of a Forever 21 t-shirt slogan: “Everyone I know is happy/But everyone I know is napping.”
The lack of lyrical depth is perhaps the album’s greatest flaw; a major disappointment from a band whose previous work contains some of the most gutting lyrics in rock music.
On The Center Won’t Hold, Sleater-Kinney make the all-too-easy mistake of skating on the barest suggestion of social commentary without actually making the commentary. Funereal pop ballad “The Future is Here” scratches the surface of unpacking the alienation perpetuated by technology, but merely points out its subject matter, falling into “phones are bad, we are sad” cliches without exploring anything deeper about the effects such technology has on us. Bemoaning the isolating effects of the internet has been a ubiquitous theme in art for some time now, and indie music is bloated with similar stabs at analyzing our lonely, screen-filled modern world. Without charting any complex lyrical territory, Sleater-Kinney’s contributions to our cultural conversation feel generic and uninspired.
Aside from lackluster lyrics, the album’s other central weakness is that a majority of the songs don’t build into anything particularly interesting. “The Dog/The Body,” catchy eighties cheese in its chorus for better or worse, becomes repetitive and fizzles out before it can achieve anything remarkable. “Restless,” praised by some fans for being the most “old Sleater-Kinney” on the album (meaning: just guitar, none of this wacky St. Vincent synth business), is sleepy and skippable. “Broken,” which was all set to be a standout in the vein of One Beat’s “Sympathy” (An understated, vulnerable track starring Corin Tucker’s immaculate vocals? I’ll take seven.) felt more like an unfinished demo than a raw piano ballad. “LOVE” is a cute and fun bout of nostalgia celebrating the band’s journey, but nothing more.
The success of “Hurry on Home” is proof that Sleater-Kinney’s experiment with a poppier sound isn’t a scapegoat for the mediocrity of The Center Won’t Hold. Instead, the less-than-impressive songwriting on the other tracks makes the production style sound stilted and self-conscious, like an unflattering Halloween costume.
That’s not to say that the album didn’t have great moments scattered amongst the half-baked. The opening track is a fantastic exercise in suspense, using ominous industrial clanks and hissing vocals by Brownstein to build to a breaking point, when the band lets loose in a high-speed rage that sounds straight out of The Woods. With glossy production and a power-pop chorus, “Reach Out” showcases the best of Corin Tucker’s always-stellar vocals. And “Hurry on Home” emerged as the album’s standout track, a nervy banger that uses arch playfulness to explore the agony of using a lover to hold together one’s self-worth-- Blondie’s “Call Me” meets Fleabag. The tense, energetic track features the album’s most dynamic lyrics paired with airtight song construction, sending the listener spiraling toward a dizzying, glam climax.
The success of “Hurry on Home” is proof that Sleater-Kinney’s experiment with a poppier sound isn’t a scapegoat for the mediocrity of The Center Won’t Hold. Instead, the less-than-impressive songwriting on the other tracks makes the production style sound stilted and self-conscious, like an unflattering Halloween costume. “Bad Dance” has a sound squarely in the Disney-villain-musical-number territory, while “RUINS” offers the aura of a cartoonish haunted house, with gasps and moans spliced underneath Tucker chanting about an evil force that wants to “Eat the weak/and devour the sane.” If the album had been full of more robust tracks like “Hurry On Home,” Sleater-Kinney may have been able to pull off dressing them up in synth-ier clothes, but without any meat, many of the songs end up sounding tacky.
Although this era of Sleater-Kinney could be defined by risks that didn’t yield fantastic results, the significance of their commitment to creating challenging new work can’t be overlooked. Out of their Riot Grrrl peers, they are the sole surviving group that have stayed together (sans Weiss) and continued to put out new material that does more than rehash a familiar sound. With contemporaries like Bikini Kill staging reunion tours, it would’ve been easy enough for Sleater-Kinney to coast on nostalgia by making Dig Me Out 2.0 or going on tour to play the beloved hits. By pushing their sound into new directions, even if the end product was lukewarm, Sleater-Kinney are paving the way for women in rock music to have a career in middle-age that doesn’t have to capitalize on the successes of former youth. It’s a challenge to name any other active band made up entirely of women in their forties, and the rock world sorely needs those stories. Tucker and Brownstein have been vocal over the past month about their intent to forge on without Weiss, and after the offbeat palette of The Center Won’t Hold, who knows what their next record might sound like. But Sleater-Kinney have always been a restless band, content to never stay in one sonic place for too long, and we can safely expect another reinvention. Maybe next time, the results will be less uneven. RATING: C
Kara Gordon is a sophomore at the University of Florida, where she studies Theatre and English.