Sleater-Kinney has over their twenty-five-year career become one of the essential Alternative bands of the early 2000s. Theirs has always been a fearless voice offering compelling social commentary and righteous punk-inspired sonics. Their latest release “The Center Won’t Hold” follows up their critically acclaimed, 2015 hiatus ending release “No Cities to Love”. “The Center Won’t Hold” thematically offers up an engaging amalgam of political and personal insights. While a contemporary chart sound combines with their classic Punk and Girl Power ethos to make for an alluring accompaniment.
Sleater-Kinney’s decision to enlist Annie Clark (St. Vincent) as the album’s producer appears inspired as Clark sent the band off on a whole new musical path. Clark, no slouch in her own recordings, on “The Center Won’t Hold” adds a sleek, sensuous touch to Sleater Kinney’s powerful sonics and world view. Core band members Corin Tucker, and Carrie Brownstein, renowned for her Portlandia TV series, returned for the recording of the album along with drummer Janet Weiss a long time band member. Sadly Weiss would depart the band after the album’s completion.
The overriding feeling conveys on “The Center Won’t Hold” is a kind of grieving process that attempts to exorcise the demons of personal setbacks and political disappointments. It strives to accomplish that task by looking beyond the dissatisfactions of the current time to the hope and resiliency of the future. Musically throughout the release, the band bravely reaches out to prior untested musical approaches to provide an engaging listen. This all occurs without selling out what has always made them distinctive, their fierce love of Punk and feminist leanings.
“The Center Won’t Hold” title track is something to experience. It is dark and oppressive at its centre registering their dissatisfaction with the world and their individual shortcomings. Yet the band does not use a sledgehammer to drive home their point, instead of bidding their time until almost the end of the track where a burst of flailing punk releases a torrent of Sleater Kinney trademark sonics make the song oh so satisfying. “Hurry On Home” is the first single off the album and is more overtly aggressive yet tempered by a pop song ethos. This discussion about betrayal uses the pop elements to intentionally help the bitter medicine of the lyric to go down.
The band then offers up two songs that seem to be two halves of one whole. “Reach Out and Can I Go On” both share a central theme which is despondency and isolation. “Reach Out” utilizes 80’s/90’s throwback sonics to offset the swirling atmosphere of darkness. The narrator in the song seeks a way out of the depressive hold they find themselves trapped within. “Can I Go On” continues this theme and is even more compelling with the use of a dayglo brightness that belies the depression and isolation at its core. Also of note is the use of a single voice on the verses embodying the despondence of the song and the chorus using multiple vocals to represent inclusion and hope. Throughout the song, the lyrics acknowledge the woefulness of civilization’s current situation but offer transcendent hope as the reason to continue. “Restless” continues these ideas acknowledging the fact that the solutions to society’s problems are complex and difficult while it aptly fleshes out our dark wishes with the lyric, “My heart wants the ugliest things”. The track is loaded with stunning guitars and makes for another winning selection.
The absolutely bleakest moment of the recording occurs with “Ruins” which for my money is the best track on the release. It is laden with magnificent fuzzy guitar work that underpins the dystopia where the evils of this world “eat the weak and devour the sane”. Sleater-Kinney questions the point of fighting against the inevitable and rail against the fight’s soul wearying cost. They capture the sad realization that there is relief in accepting what can’t be changed.
Just when all hope seems lost the album swings in the opposite direction with “Love” which celebrates all that is good. This fantastic track marries Devo’s punchy sonics to B-52 girl chorus effects to stress that ultimately love can conquer all. The album really hits its stride on “Bad Dance” which is a totally addictive track that takes place within a dance club. The narrator goes “all in” reaching for the freedom of the moment with no responsibility, like some last days of Rome scenario. This scenario is countered by the next track “The Future is Here” which can be likened to the morning after. The bill has come due and there is no way to pay the tab. The track works as both an allegory and as a breakup song. The wailing synths make it a driving music piece.
“The Dog/The Body” was written by Brownstein around the time of Tom Petty’s death. The band along with producer Clark wanted the track to sound like a song that would be sung as a sing-along at the end of the night at a bar. On the surface, the song is just that, but underneath is an exposition on being the subservient member of a couple. The final track, “Broken” is miles away from the Sleater-Kinney Girrl Power sonics of their early career. On this piano solo, Corin Tucker pours out her heart. The gripping track examines how we still have so far to go for the world to reach anything like perfection. Expressed is the realization that the battle is never over and utopia is an idea not reality. It is a magnificent closer to an excellent release.
Sleater-Kinney’s wry moxie has always been the cornerstone of their attraction. They have often exercised their frustrations with monumental punk rage anthems. Maybe the time has worn some of the edges off their anger but what remains is a band unafraid to fight for a better world along with the understanding that we as humans are flawed beings. “The Center Won’t Hold” displays a maturity and open-mindedness that makes the album a jewel.
There might be less signature Punk and the sonics might be more downbeat but the message is luminously conveyed. The release is not a band reunion rehash of Sleater-Kinney’s past but a bold step into the future with the band offering the same insightful commentary and wisdom they have always seemed to possess. On “The Center Won’t Hold” Sleater Kinney continues to pull no punches, and we wouldn’t want them any other way.