Album Review: Sleater-Kinney—’The Center Won’t Hold’

Posted: by The Editor

In 2014, the Olympia, Washington indie-punk band Sleater-Kinney, fronted by guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, ended an eight-year hiatus. The in the year that followed, they made their triumphant return with No Cities to Love, a fantastic album showcasing everything that made them great without retreading familiar territory. 

In 2018, it was revealed that Sleater-Kinney had begun working on their long-awaited follow-up, and in the beginning of 2019, news broke that Annie Clark had been tapped as its producer. Clark, who’s known for producing her own art-pop-rock under the moniker of St. Vincent, has put out a heap of quality work over the years, but her music and Sleater-Kinney’s are very different. And given Sleater-Kinney’s roots as a raw DIY indie band, it was striking to hear that such a hi-fi artist would be working the boards.

Months after that announcement, a sudden development took everyone by surprise—the band included. At the beginning of July, well before the mid-August release of the The Center Won’t Hold, longtime drummer Janet Weiss ended her tenure with the group, stating, “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.” Many assumptions floated around regarding the specifics of her departure, but with the mention of “a new direction,” it seemed that the new record—and perhaps Clark’s role in it—was the crux of her departure. Therefore, while listening to the uncharacteristically maximalist The Center Won’t Hold, it’s hard to avoid thinking about how far they’ve strayed from their original sound. 

The Center Won’t Hold is without a doubt the band’s most pop-centric record. They were never a stranger to pop-leaning songwriting, and in theory a more melodic direction could be very successful for them. But in the cleaner route the band pursues for this record, a good deal of their signature ferocity is missing from their sound. The title track/opener, for all the power it displays toward the end, seems more preoccupied with theatricality then rawness, and ends up coming across as somewhat contrived. The songs after, however, do not, and are tackled with the enthusiasm found on Sleater-Kinney’s previous albums.

“Hurry on Home”and “Bad Dance” sound like a cross between the S-K of yesterday and today, a combination of menace and melody with a glossy, polished sheen. “Reach Out” includes much of the same characteristics, but ups the sense of punk danger in a way that feels essential within this tracklist. “Can I Go On,” “LOVE,” and “The Dog/The Body” are catchy pop tunes with infectious choruses that all succeed in their efforts to be sing-along’s. However, one of the true shining moments arrives during “Restless,” a straightforward cut that strips back much of the gloss (with the exception of the strings in its finale) and creates an air of honesty and sincerity in lines such as, “My heart is the ugliest thing, and I learn to love the ugliest things /Like you and me.”

“RUINS,” unfortunately, comes off as an unexciting trudge, but “The Future is Here” fortunately redeems what the former was attempting to achieve. It creates a feeling darkness and anger without making the song feel like it’s going in circles. Interestingly, the track wouldn’t seem out of place on New Order’s 1985 record Low-Life, but sometimes that familiarity becomes an issue. At times, some of the songs on The Center Won’t Hold don’t feel unique to the band and the sound they spent years crafting and honing. Regardless, “Broken,” which ends the album, is nothing more than vocals, piano, and guitar. It’s a rarity in the S-K songbook, and a melancholy, powerful end to the record. 

The Center Won’t Hold, despite a few missteps, is undoubtedly a good and very brave album. It displays the band trying to advance a long-established sound, and making a risk not many others would be willing to take. However, the result finds them in an odd flux. Ferocity done-away with in favor of well-made pop-rock, but lacking some of their impactful identity. The album could probably alienate some longtime fans—it seems to have alienated Weiss— but in order to progress their sound, it was a step they had to take. The Center Won’t Hold signals a simultaneous end and a beginning for the band, which creates an immediate sense of anticipation for what they will eventually do next. 

Disappointing / Average / GoodGreat / Phenomenal

David A. Gutierrez | @dagewts

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