What It Means To Listen To Sleater-Kinney Now
Consistency and longevity are the two parents of expectation, which can hang immovably over the corners of fandom. In music, when a band is very good for a very long time, it becomes impossible to imagine it being anything else. It must be said that Sleater-Kinney has been so good for so long, it is unfair. The band has been playing for a collective 17 years, excluding an eight-year hiatus; its most fruitful and furious years, roughly 1996 to 2005, curved around the back end of an era of indie rock and kicked in the door to a new one. If, like me, you discovered Sleater-Kinney near the end of this period and worked your way backwards and then forwards again, to fall in love with the band meant frustratedly but joyfully sprinting from track to track, wondering if there would ever be a bad song.
For me, during that stretch, the group was at its best in the confines of a chorus or a crescendo, where the voices of singer-guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein would fight to claim their own space — as in the closing moments of 1996's "Call the Doctor," in which Tucker's siren voice belts out the titular command, and Brownstein's growl of "you / are / not / me" paces the outskirts of the noise before charging directly into the fray. It was good to hear a band fully against negotiating its own rage, no matter if that rage arrived by bombast or by ballad. And it seemed impossible that they'd ever be anything but great in the very specific way they had come to be great — especially in 2015, when they returned from hiatus with No Cities to Love. That album reflected that the band was different now: grown, with new concerns and new lenses to see those concerns through. But the sound remained familiar, due in part to the unmistakable sonic spine of drummer and backing vocalist Janet Weiss.
Weiss joined on 1997's Dig Me Out, solidifying a lineup that had cycled through drummers until then and setting a course for the future. Her drumming is best signified by its malleability: She is as adept at a rapidly accumulating fill as she is laying down heavy and plodding bursts of percussion that make a listener feel they're being led to the gates of somewhere dark and unsavory. When a band is endowed with one of the greatest drummers there has ever been, the music follows whatever path that drummer takes the band on.
Now, for the first time in two decades, Sleater-Kinney finds itself without Weiss. In a surprise move less than two months before the release of its new album, the Annie Clark-helmed The Center Won't Hold, the drummer announced her departure in July, saying, "The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on." Brownstein and Tucker released a brief statement thanking Weiss for their years together; when pressed by a fan on Instagram for further information, Brownstein replied, "What am I supposed to say? She left. We asked her to stay. We tried. It's hard and sad."
Near the end of June, the trio had appeared on The Tonight Show, performing the single "Hurry On Home" — a collision of distorted but bouncy sounds that certainly felt like a new direction sonically. The song had debuted in April as an innovative music video that unfurled its lyrics through text exchanges on the screen of an iPhone, a uniquely charming presentation that may have alleviated the musical sticker shock some fans expressed at the music. On Fallon, the band looked more tentative than rejuvenated by its new sound and look, which included matching black gowns and jagged animations on video displays. Weiss in particular seemed to plod through her duties at the kit, while a halo of spreading fingers opened and sharp teeth rose in the mouths of dueling animals behind her. In the moment it was easy to chalk the mood up to a band turning a corner, playing a new song live for the first time and feeling out a version of themselves they'd never explored before. But when Weiss left a week and a half later, her concerns at a shifting direction seemed to also speak to the distance present onstage.
Out Aug. 16, The Center Won't Hold is both Sleater-Kinney album and Annie Clark vehicle, often gently sparse and hauntingly, beautifully electronic. As long demonstrated in her own work as St. Vincent, Clark's productions are magic tricks, so cleanly worked that one might miss the delightful chaos of her wall of sound. Her arrangements are masterful at swelling in intensity without (always) swelling in volume. In that way she is perfect for Sleater-Kinney, a group of musicians who have figured out how to mask and modulate their many intensities, sonic and lyrical, depending on what a song demands. The album-opening title track illustrates those visions side by side, shifting abruptly from a meditative and hypnotic pace to a breakneck run through its finale, with Tucker singing the title repeatedly, the words gathering as they did in "Call the Doctor," growing more urgent and accusatory as Weiss' drums rattle off every portion of the background. For fans who had been anxious and divided over a new sound, leading the album with a song that struts the new sound out for a few minutes before diving headfirst back into the band's old comforts is quite the delightful trick.
There are songs here — good, varied songs. "Restless" has a sweet churn at its center, unlocking the feel of driving with the windows down at night when the heat of the daytime has finally made its departure. "LOVE" sounds like an '80s TV or video game theme that doesn't exactly work on the first listen, but becomes irresistible halfway through the second. The album closes with "Broken," a ballad whose sparse piano instrumentation serves mainly as a container for vivid and vulnerable lyrics sung by Tucker, addressing a #MeToo-like story with empathy and thoughtfulness. The song is a reminder that Tucker, though known for her distinct and earth-shaking voice, could sing anything and make it hers. Lyrically, it is also a reminder that Sleater-Kinney's political concerns remain and are becoming more personal, more retrospective as the members age. The world has changed since the last time the band released an album, and they have changed with it.
Still, it is hard to not notice the lack of interplay between Tucker and Brownstein on the album, which seems at times like a work made in small, separate pieces and stitched together. The true excitement of hearing Sleater-Kinney's singers always rested in their visceral vocal tug-of-war, and in understanding that dynamic not as a product of ego but a matter of serving the song. On The Center Won't Hold, it feels as if there are Carrie songs, and there are Corin songs, and the two are at times an ocean apart.
This is one of many reminders that the members, as public figures, are also not who they were. In the band's prime era, Carrie Brownstein was often an aesthetic focal point: She's charismatic, she's funny, she's great in front of a camera, and with her instrument in hand, she plays the role of guitar hero extremely well. But her star power grew even more apparent during the hiatus, as she became a sometime NPR contributor, wrote and starred in an acclaimed TV series and penned a critically adored memoir. By the time Sleater-Kinney reunited, she seemed equipped to grow into a leading role in a group that had most often worked as three equal parts of the same machine. There are moments on The Center Won't Hold that feel committed to the expanding of Carrie Brownstein within the public imagination. This isn't all bad: In some ways, Brownstein's vision and talent are a logical match for those of Clark, who sees the boundary beyond the boundary everyone else sees.
But with uncertainty looming over Weiss' departure, which naturally leads to uncertainty about the band's future, the question may become: At what cost? Listening now, it feels evident that the shape of this album forced Weiss to adapt, and fair to say that change often doesn't suit the ferociousness she's brought to her role in the past. In the sound Sleater-Kinney established beginning with Dig Me Out, her drumming is singular and indescribable, refusing to shrink against the walls of howling din her bandmates produce. On The Center Won't Hold, there are some drum parts that could be performed by anyone with a decent understanding of the instrument. At moments the drumming feels robotically engineered; at others it is engulfed by the complex arrangements of its producer.
This isn't an indictment, necessarily. When a band undertakes the worthwhile work of evolution, sometimes the divide that follows extends past the fanbase and into to the interior structure of the band itself. I believe most attempts to evolve are worth it, but there is sometimes a cost. Here, the cost to Sleater-Kinney appears to be its sonic anchor, the album's brilliant and many-layered title fulfilling at least one prophecy.
By my third listen to The Center Won't Hold, I found my concerns shifting. I don't think Sleater-Kinney owes us anything, and if they ever did, they've surely more than paid it off. This may read like I am making excuses for a band I love, who made an album I'm still figuring out. But I am thinking, as always, about the responsibility of the fan and the responsibility of the musician within the faulty but wonderful exchange of music being made and music being consumed. Artists certainly do not owe their fans stagnation. In the moments when I have groaned at a change in sound, it's often because I am reaching for a comfort stored in my own nostalgia — which is not only an empty pursuit, but unfair to both myself as a listener and to the full potential of my favorite musicians. (Jay-Z isn't always right, but I do nod slowly now when thinking of how he told the people clamoring for his old s*** to buy his old albums. )
And even in the music that brought Sleater-Kinney to this point, the promise for evolution was there. It is there on 2002's One Beat, with "Funeral Song" shifting rapidly between gentle dirge and fire, fire, fire. It is there on 2005's The Woods, in the meditative and meandering "Modern Girl," or in the bending ache of Brownstein's elongated guitar solo on "What's Mine Is Yours," an animal trying to claw its way out of the cage the song has built. It is present all through No Cities To Love, whose lyrical bite and musical playfulness read much clearer now.
I get that this obscures the greater question: Even if we've made our peace with a band's evolution, it doesn't mean much if the songs aren't good. Your mileage may vary with The Center Won't Hold. I think some of the songs are good, and some I've struggled to fall in love with. I think that Annie Clark is gifted beyond any language I have to describe her gifts, and so it is possible that all of our expectations for this project were too high. I think it will age well, and I say that with no metric to confirm that thought, beyond the fact that the elements of risk and departure tend to age well once the shock has worn off. I don't know what a tour will look like without Janet Weiss, a truly heroic drummer and one of the best of this or any era, but I know I'll be there, excited as ever. And I don't know what becomes of the trio after this — if this is the end, or if Weiss comes back once more. But if this is it for the classic lineup of one of the most important rock bands of all time, I'm glad they took a big swing, and I'm glad we got to witness it.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer and poet from Columbus, Ohio. His latest books are Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest and the forthcoming A Fortune for Your Disaster.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.