Of all of the punk revivals in the past 30 years, few have been as potent or furious as the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s. Channeling the four-chord power of the Sex Pistols with a feminist fire, the movement captured the kind of righteous anger that made Black Flag and The Clash so essential. Groups like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy gave the first wave of this movement purpose and poise.
It seems almost inevitable in hindsight that Sleater-Kinney would find crossover success. Bursting onto the scene just after the movement’s outset, its self-titled debut was unflinching and uncompromising. Vocalist Corin Tucker’s violent wails, Janet Weiss’s overpowering drums, Carrie Brownstein’s jagged yet virtuosic guitar—all of this signified something special, something in a class all its own.
As the group grew through the ’90s and early 2000s, it incorporated more elements of post-punk and ’80s college rock into its overall sound, remaining as politically and lyrically powerful as ever while growing more polished. Woods, their 2005 LP, owes as much to the sounds of Wire and Fugazi as it does to the Sex Pistols. If Bikini Kill was a dagger to the heart, Sleater-Kinney was a tidal wave.
Now, with the same shock and excitement that came with their arrival, Sleater-Kinney returned from a 10-year hiatus with its newest album No Cities to Love, filling a hole in the music world as only this group could. Sleater-Kinney didn’t have to put out a new LP. It could have toured on the strength of its back catalog alone. But Sleater-Kinney has never been complacent.
To a certain extent, No Cities to Love doesn’t represent a massive new direction for the band. The layered, throbbing post-punk that built past classics like “O2” or “You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun” is still very much intact. But where hiatuses have cut down lesser acts, Sleater-Kinney sounds just as energetic and vitalized as ever. Tucker’s vocals still thrust through the mix on “Price Tag” and second single “Surface Envy.” Brownstein’s guitar (and vocals, on some tracks) is just as dynamic and intense, giving album highlight “Bury Our Friends” punch and vigor. And Weiss’s drumming forms the pulsating, pounding backbone to tracks like “New Wave” or “No Anthems.”
But this is so much more than just a good reunion album: This is essential listening. “Price Tag” is a heated, piercing starter pistol of an opener, building off of Brownstein’s jabbing guitar riffs. The serpentine “Surface Envy” is anchored by Tucker’s boisterous, shattering chorus. “No Cities to Love” builds to an immense, exciting climax in its final minutes. “Bury Our Friends” is a veritable wall of sound.
Everything here is fresh. Everything here sounds as modern and edgy as ever. This isn’t a victory lap. This is an album by a band that, even a decade apart, refuses to lose its creative spark.
Time has hardly killed the lyrical wit and power of the band: here, it’s just as charged and political, but also acerbic and self-aware. “Price Tag” skewers the hypocrisy and perversity of modern consumerism (“We never checked the price tag/When the cost comes in/It’s gonna be high”). “No Cities To Love” examines the vapidity and emptiness of identifying with a hometown (“There are no cities, no cities to love/It’s not the weather, it’s the nothing we love”). And “No Anthems” explores the simultaneous power and degradation of songwriting (“Seduction pure function/It’s how I learned to speak” and “I sang the song of me, but now/there are no anthems”). These are lyrics full of subtleties and hidden pleasures, like Rubik’s cubes waiting to be solved. And yet, they’re so clearly acknowledging the changing world in which Sleater-Kinney and its members have grown.
This is perhaps most evident in the album’s closer, “Fade.” A sludgy, dirge-like piece not unlike Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” is, at first glance, an expedition through death (“when the last strip of light is dimming… if there’s no tomorrow/you better live”). But lyrics like “all the roles that we played” or “what a price that we paid” speak to a very specific meaning: Is this the end of Sleater-Kinney? Is Sleater-Kinney fading, or simply becoming something else altogether?
There hasn’t been any indication as to whether this new LP will be the band’s last. They could very well go on one last tour and call it quits. But maybe the questions that “Fade” asks don’t need to be answered. Because No Cities to Love stands on its own as a towering, unimpeachable piece in one of the great discographies of the past 20 years. Maybe, as Corin Tucker sings on “Fade,” “we are truly dancing our swan song.” Even if that’s the case, we will, as she commands, “shake it like never before.”