No Cities to Love, the album that formally establishes Sleater-Kinney's return after an eight-year hiatus, has a reputation to live up to. The band recognizes this: “We're trying to push through, so desperately, to something bigger,” drummer Janet Weiss recently told NPR. And while desperation isn't always a good look, this is a band that's often, and pointedly, made even love sound like the most cataclysmic of efforts.
Despite its resigned-sounding title, No Cities to Love is all about trying—striving to best a catalogue without peer, and sounding, minute-to-minute, like its makers might've done it. But while it could never be said that Sleater-Kinney's sense of levity has been integral to their sound, that sound's also never been quite so void of it. Songs like “You're No Rock & Roll Fun” and “Words and Guitar” exuded an approachable playfulness, even in their ironic stance, that No Cities to Love seems a bit too concerned with reasserting their bona fides, both in terms of craft and cultural awareness, to bother with. That's because it's an album rife with targets. Often these become the disillusion of held assumptions about the band's reunion (“Price Tag”) or the genre to which they belong (“New Wave”). Markswomen that Weiss, Carrie Brownstein, and Corin Tucker are, they never miss, even when the subject is more opaque, but the sheer heavy sense of obligation that sinks into these 10 manifestos can get a bit wearying.
The album is all about trying—striving to best a catalogue without peer, and sounding, minute-to-minute, like its makers might’ve done it.
Accept the slight strain of portentousness to this album, though, and you'll find a world-class rock band in as fine form as ever. The opening run of “Price Tag,” “Fangless” (with its super-melodic tuned-down guitar solo), and “Surface Envy” is a ferocious assault of high-flying riffs and sky-scraping vocals, distinctly Sleater-Kinney in that they never fail to deliver on the hook. “Surface Envy” in particular is a stunner, ground zero for the winningly off-kilter guitar tunings that become this album's loose musical motif, and nearly as hurricane-cacophonous as The Woods's power-keg standout “The Fox.”
It's the guitars that consistently attract the most attention here, even if that seems a bit unfair to Weiss's eclectic kit work (notably, the dance-punk beat of “Fangless”). It's not only the tuning either; it's the effects (the grungy lead and tremelo-affected bridge of the title track, the choked power-chord fuzz of “No Anthems”), the dexterity (prog-metal change-ups on “Fade”), and the always-great tag-team work between Brownstein and Tucker. The latter in particular displays an admirable group ethic, dialing back when necessary to allow for clearer solos and leads from her innovative bandmate than were possible in the dense thicket of The Woods's crowded mix, which tends to make for a more focused attack.
Still, a certain poptimism is missed. Less abstractly, this album conforms a bit too much to a limited Sleater-Kinney narrative: that they do one thing really, really well. Fans of the band know this to be false, that their sound encompasses not just punk-rock glories, but the full scope of mid-to-late-'90s female-centric rock; bittersweet bedroom confessionals and woozy, soft-spoken ballads (All Hands on the Bad One's “Leave You Behind” and “The Swimmer,” respectively) worthy of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville contribute to their make-up. And while there's a clear logic to stepping back from these less celebrated contours of their music, should No Cities to Love end up as not a reboot to the band's operations, but merely a belated parting shot, then The Woods would probably have been a more fitting finale.