Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Music Review: Sleater-Kinney - The Center Won't Hold

by Mike Drinan

Sleater-Kinney has been one of my all time favorite bands since their 2002 album One Beat absolutely changed the way I listen to punk with raucous guitar licks, extremely unique and intricate drum patterns from the incomparable Janet Weiss, and the back and forth exchange between vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. Then, in 2005 they released The Woods, an album that remains in my Top 5 albums of all time. The Olympia, Washington trio were unafraid and unwavering in their political and social commentary. They even took aim at the indie rock scene of the mid-2000s. To them, everyone and everything was fair game. On their ninth studio album, The Center Won’t Hold, while the political and social commentary is still a big topic, they also put themselves in the crosshairs.

The Center Won’t Hold stands in stark contrast to the rest of Sleater-Kinney’s catalog by shrugging off their style of punk and moving into the arena of art punk pop (I don’t know if that’s a thing but makes sense to me) with the help of St. Vincent, a brilliant songwriter in her own right. This new aesthetic is at times jarring as much as it is suspicious. Personally, I dislike this new sonic direction the band has taken, but that is based more on preference than anything. My first listen to this record was tough. I felt that this new art pop sound was drowning out the forcefulness of their voices, their presence. It was only with multiple listens that I started to come around.

In fact, some of the best tracks on this album are those in the art pop persuasion. “Bad Dance” is easily my favorite track. It has an infectious rhythm as it embraces the end of the world caused by a reckless leader, with lyrics as elegant and precise as they are politically frustrating, “My truth is slack and loose/My morals are unsound/But I'm amusing, I'm amazing, I'm impure/Dip your toes into the chaos/It'll feel just like a cure”. The sound and style is different, but the band remains the same.

“RUINS” is a fuzzed out track that starts out as a creepy crawl before ramped up into a climax that becomes thrilling and exciting. The arrangement is interesting and gives the song an edge that I can’t get enough of and the lyric “Do you feast on nostalgia? Take pleasure from pain” has been replaying in my mind over and over again that I find myself returning to the song. Their take on social media on “The Future Is Here” is just as addicting with all of the na na na’s in the chorus.

The weakest tracks on the album are those that are drenched in an 80s new wave pop sound. “Love” tells the story of the band’s history starting with Carrie slipping her address to Corin after hearing her sing with legendary Riot Grrrl band Heavens To Betsy and moves on by playing with old album titles Call The Doctor and Dig Me Out, which is fun but the song sounds like something The Cars or The Go-Go’s would sing, and that’s only a bad thing for the sole reason that it doesn’t seem to fit Sleater-Kinney. Then, there’s the obvious irony of the song considering that longtime drummer Janet Weiss left the band shortly after the album’s release citing artistic differences.

Tracks like “Reach Out” and “Can I Go On” carry this same 80s pop feel to a much more sickening degree complete with awful to mediocre lyrics. The latter seems to take aim at the music industry and whether there is enough motive, creativity and desire for the band themselves to carry on, and as much as I hope the band continues on, the recycled 80s pop sound has got to go.

Vintage Sleater-Kinney only shows up once on this album in the form of the lead single “Hurry On Home”. The song is a desperate plea to regain something that has changed or has been lost. It’s a despair couched in a domestic setting, yet underneath the surface lies a political, social commentary that exhibits a disgust but with a pretty gnarly guitar riff and lyrics that reclaim the power over feeble-minded insults “You know I'm unfuckable, unlovable, unlistenable, unwatchable”. It’s filled with the angst and the power I love hearing from this band.

This isn’t the first album in Sleater-Kinney’s repertoire that is controversial. Their albums The Hot Rock, One Beat and especially The Woods were divisive upon their release and are now regarded as some of their best work, The Woods constantly being referred to as their swan song. Will this happen with The Center Won’t Hold? Maybe. The attributes that make Sleater-Kinney such a great punk outfit in the past - the uncompromising commentary on society, politics, music and relationships, the loud piercing guitars, the back and forth exchanges between vocalists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker - are still here even though they might sound a little different.

However, the most difficult thing to this album, for me, that is impossible to ignore is the simplification of Janet’s drumming on this album. Where are all the great fills she is known for and everybody loves? How are you going to have one of the greatest drummers in rock in your band and not use her talents properly? It’s a waste. It’s like having Aretha Franklin doing a spoken word verse on a song.


The album is definitely an experimentation of sound and style that tends to be hit and miss over the course of these eleven songs. As much as I would like to dislike this release, I can’t say I do. Obviously there are a few skippable songs but overall there are more strengths present than weaknesses. I hope in the future they ditch the pop aesthetic. It doesn’t suit them or play to their strengths. It reigns in and somewhat quells the command and power they wield so effortlessly. It made it a difficult album for me to review and I hope they got it out of their system.

I give the album **½ out of ****

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