Sleater-Kinney — The Center Won’t Hold

I’m writing about the newest Sleater-Kinney record because it is not in my list of favorite records that came out this year. It just can’t be. But I also have to talk about it and get my feelings out in some way, or I won’t feel like I’ve properly explained myself to one of my very favorite bands of my whole life. They need to know why I don’t like their new record.

It had been four years since Sleater-Kinney had emerged from a ten-year hiatus with No Cities to Love, a really great artistic statement that felt like a true return without rehashing old sounds. With the news of a new record coming out this year, I had reason to set my expectations high. Surely, they could do it again, right?

They could, but they didn’t.

It’s difficult to get the full, complete story from everyone involved, but what it seems like happened was this: Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, the two indispensable frontwomen of Sleater-Kinney, at some point became enamored with the idea of their band evolving into something radically different. Something that sounded a lot like the music of St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, aka an artist who many people say is brilliant and I’m sure she is but I find her music to be cold and useless. Carrie and Corin took this idea to two extremes: for one, they brought in Annie Clark to produce their new record, for the first time having a big name musician as their producer.

The much bigger move was to tell their drummer of more than two decades, Janet Weiss, that her role had changed. According to a recent interview with Janet, Carrie and Corin came to her and told her that moving forward, things would be different. She asked them, “Am I just the drummer now?” Carrie and Corin said, “Yes.” Janet asked, “Am I still a creative equal in the band?” Carrie and Corin said, “No.”

Why was this necessary? Why did Janet, one of the best drummers in the history of rock music, need to be stifled and have her powers taken away? Because in the world of music like St. Vincent’s, and more specifically the new direction Carrie and Corin wanted to take things, playing with emotion and vigor is frowned upon. It’s important to look cool and disconnected and cold at all times. I mean, look at this picture:

What the hell is that? Why are they wearing weird raincoats? Why do none of them look comfortable with what is happening? Why is there a butt? Sleater-Kinney doesn’t have butts in their promo pictures!

The reason why is because, for whatever reason, Carrie and Corin seemingly wanted to emulate everything that St. Vincent does. I need to be clear that I am not particularly angry at St. Vincent for any of this. She seems super nice, and again, is very talented. But I do blame her for taking Sleater-Kinney under her wing and allowing them to go astray from what made them one of the most powerful rock bands on the planet.

If you look back to the first two Sleater-Kinney records, Sleater-Kinney and Call the Doctor, you’ll notice that they are lacking something. There are some wonderful songs there, particularly on Call the Doctor, but their drummer at the time did not have much oomph behind her playing.

When Janet Weiss joined the band, they transformed into a much, much more fully realized version of what they had been doing. Carrie and Corin were still bouncing their angular guitar ideas off each other, but now there was Janet, pounding away like a maniac with her inventive fills and driving beats. And when she joined and they released Dig Me Out in ’97, that was when the band started taking over the indie rock world. They had hit upon the perfect formula — catchy, strong rock’n’roll sending a call for action out to all the women of the world, while still welcoming in any man who had an open mind and wasn’t threatened by girls who might ruffle their feathers.

But apparently, after 22 years of this adulation and respect, Carrie and Corin decided to change things. This is where I have to say that I am not against an artist wanting their work to evolve. Progression is the sign of an artist who can rise above the rest. I get that. But when Carrie and Corin had to tell Janet that her role in the band was now different, it should have been apparent to them that the road of progress Sleater-Kinney was heading down needed to be blocked off. When your artistic evolution has made it so that an extremely essential element of your band’s sound and success has been phased out, you have ceased to be your band. You are now something else.

My wife Andrea, who would also list Sleater-Kinney as one of her all-time favorites, has said it best every time she tries to get through The Center Won’t Hold: “Why didn’t Carrie just do a solo project??” This gets at a very glaring issue with the record, which is that it doesn’t even feel like just Janet being pushed out, but Corin as well. She does have a few moments for herself, like the too-long “RUINS” and the closing piano ballad “Broken.” But other than that Carrie Brownstein is the focus. Yes, she’s now far and away the most famous member of the band, which never used to be the case, but it’s still no reason for her to so fundamentally change what Sleater-Kinney is and does. If she wanted to make a record with St. Vincent so badly, I just wish she would have done that on her own, and pushed a new Sleater-Kinney record back by another year or two.

I guess I should talk about some of the songs themselves. Here is the nicest thing I can say about them: because Carrie and Corin will always be brilliant songwriters, no matter what new direction their sound goes, the songs on The Center Won’t Hold aren’t necessarily bad. Most of them are fine. But I only enjoy them when I’m not listening to them. When I’m just walking around, thinking about songs like “The Future is Here” or “Reach Out” or “LOVE,” I am hearing them in my head the way Sleater-Kinney would have played them 10 or 15 years ago, and it’s kind of good.

But then, again, I listen to them and I get bummed. Instead of overpowering guitars, you get a little bit of those, but mostly bleeps and bloops. Sure, I don’t understand electro-pop or EDM or whatever, fine. I’m old and I like guitars, I get it. I just don’t understand why for so many bands and artists these days, “evolving” your sound just means taking out the elements you used to use and putting in more electronic stuff. It feels like a way too generous excuse for simply wanting your sound to be more palatable to the mainstream.

There is one song on the record where not one electro bloop shows up — “Restless.” It’s just two guitars and drums. But the song is played so sluggishly and quietly that it almost feels like a slap in the face, or a cruel tease. Carrie and Corin write exactly one song where Janet could utilize her skills, but instead they tell her to play it as straight and tame as possible. It pains me to hear, and it probably pained Janet to play it.

And that is the overall feeling I walk away with every time I give The Center Won’t Hold another chance: pain, with a hint of sadness, pining for the past. I don’t need Sleater-Kinney to keep making new records, but if they’re going to, I wish they wouldn’t try to pretend like their past doesn’t exist. Bands should evolve naturally from record to record, not completely drop everything that made them special.

It is always a joy to hear Carrie and Corin sing songs. But if the songs will be like this now, it’s a joy I might have to live without.

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