Sleater-Kinney has been exceptionally good for an exceptionally long time. Even accounting for the band’s eight-year break, it has had an uncommonly fruitful career; critic Greil Marcus famously described it as the greatest rock band in America in a 2001 issue of TIME Magazine, and his judgment has only become more accurate as the years pass. Sleater-Kinney’s 2015 album No Cities to Love—its first after going on hiatus in 2006—displayed an updated musical sensibility but was still predominantly a return to form, proof that band members Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss could still rock as hard as they used to. In comparison, their latest release, The Center Won’t Hold, is a much bigger transition, and a riskier artistic choice.
A big part of Sleater-Kinney’s distinctive sound is thanks to the strength of drummer Janet Weiss, who joined the band on its third album, Dig Me Out. Weiss is a once-in-a-generation talent on the drums, and her fierce percussion formed the foundation upon which the band built its signature sound. So her departure from Sleater-Kinney, which she announced abruptly less than two months before the release of their newest album, came as an unwelcome surprise. Weiss cited the band’s movement in a new direction as her reason for leaving, and many fans—myself included—worried that she might be a canary in a coal mine. If such an integral and recognizable member of the band wasn’t a fan of the direction it was moving in, how could that direction possibly be the right one?
These fears are not entirely unfounded. The Center Won’t Hold is a jarring listen for the longtime fans of Sleater-Kinney. The band has never shied away from experimentation—from the outspokenly political One Beat to the moodily psychedelic The Woods—but its furious energy has remained consistent, and even though its sound has evolved over time, it has always felt as if it’s moving down the same path. In comparison, the new album feels like complete left turn, toning down the band’s raw dynamism in favor of music that borders on electropop.
These changes are due in large part to the production of Annie Clark (better known by her stage name, St. Vincent), whose fingerprints are all over The Center Won’t Hold. Clark is a gifted artist in her own right, one whose precisely modulated arrangements often belie the intensity of her music. It’s clear that she has brought her own sensibilities to the record, which have a sparser, more stylized sound than Sleater-Kinney’s earlier work. There are moments where The Center Won’t Hold could pass for a St. Vincent record, and as much as I like St. Vincent, I’m not convinced sacrificing Sleater-Kinney’s signature ferocity is a good thing.
It would be easy to hold Clark’s role as producer singlehandedly responsible for any missteps on The Center Won’t Hold (and some fans have, responding to news of Weiss’s departure from the band by misogynistically comparing Clark to Yoko Ono), but the album falls short of its predecessors in ways that have little to do with her. This is the first album where Brownstein and Tucker haven’t written all the songs while physically together, and it shows. One of the strongest parts of Sleater-Kinney’s older music is the frequent interplay between the two singer-guitarists, whose singing and playing often build against each other as if fighting for dominance. This friction is missing in the new songs, and the result feels a bit disjointed, as if both musicians wrote separate albums and then smashed them together. Weiss’s drumming on the album also feels different. Rather than standing firm against the rising tide of Tucker and Brownstein’s sparring vocals, it fades into the background, dwarfed by the album’s complex arrangements. The drums feel less vital to the music than on earlier albums, and it’s not hard to see why Weiss might have felt prompted to leave.
It’s tempting to mourn the Sleater-Kinney that used to be, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss the band’s old punk rock powerhouse sound. Yet, the more I listen to The Center Won’t Hold, the more I wonder if a return to form is really what I wanted. I discovered Sleater-Kinney when I was 15, and when they were several years into a hiatus I assumed that was the permanent end of their career. Their music was several years old at that point, but it felt both relevant and revealing. I had never heard anything that spoke so keenly to the raw, urgent fury of young womanhood. To be frank, I still haven’t. But the truth is that the members of Sleater-Kinney aren’t young women anymore, and that no matter how many albums they release they can never give me what I really wish for, which is to witness their late-’90s heyday firsthand. Nostalgia is a powerful weapon (and a powerful marketing tool), but it would be a shame for such a singularly talented band to choose safety over evolution.
It must also be noted that some of the strongest songs on The Center Won’t Hold are the biggest departures from Sleater-Kinney’s old music. These include “Broken,” a quietly despairing track referencing Christine Blasey Ford’s testimonial against Brett Kavanaugh which showcases Tucker’s emotional vocals, and “LOVE,” a rhythmic, synth-heavy retelling of the of Sleater-Kinney’s long and storied history that acts as a love letter to the band itself. Nowhere is the transition between old and new Sleater-Kinney clearer than on the album’s title track. “The Center Won’t Hold” starts off slowly, with distorted bass and clanging drums, but picks up suddenly in the final minute, as Tucker’s singing builds to a scream. It’s an acknowledgment of both the new, St. Vincent-influenced sound and the aggression of the band’s old work, and it’s my favorite song on the album.
It’s clear that The Center Won’t Hold marks the end of an era, perhaps even more so than The Woods (Sleater-Kinney’s last album before its hiatus). It’s clear from the mixed responses that this transition has lost the band some fans, but I’m glad Sleater-Kinney made the riskier choice, and I’m excited to see where they go next.
Tara Joy can be reached at email@example.com.