Review: Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold Represents a Band in Flux

The album’s pop and synth elements mark a radical departure for the seminal rock band.

The Center Won't Hold
Photo: Nikko LaMere

By the height of their popularity in the mid-aughts, culminating with 2005’s The Woods, Sleater-Kinney had morphed from a scrappy punk band into a rock behemoth capable of spinning out sprawling, almost proggy opuses. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker built complex, blistering guitar parts that intertwined, bounced around, and frequently exploded into full-on Guitar Hero-style pyrotechnics. And all the while, drummer Janet Weiss laid down beats that were equal parts chest-crushingly powerful and playfully inventive.

The pleasure of listening to Sleater-Kinney has always come from hearing these three stellar musicians, each with their own distinct styles, mesh into a cohesive whole. There’s never a wasted beat, chord, or lyric in a Sleater-Kinney song. The Center Won’t Hold, however, represents a radical departure for the seminal rock band. Under the influence of producer Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), Sleater-Kinney’s ninth studio album incorporates both poppier elements and dark, new-wave-indebted synths into their signature sound, a “new direction” that prompted Weiss to announce that she’ll be exiting the group.

The result of this broadening of their sound varies throughout. The title track is the biggest departure on the album—and also its weakest. For the first two-thirds of the song, Brownstein yelps menacingly over a beat that sounds like it’s played on found items in a junkyard. “I need something pretty/To help me ease my pain/And I need something ugly/To put me in my place,” she growls. The track doesn’t take any kind of shape until it’s almost over, when Weiss’s drums come thrashing in. Tucker howls the song’s title repeatedly, but coming from a band that’s always been unabashedly progressive, the sentiment lacks teeth.

Other tracks are more musically sophisticated, even if they lack the power of the band’s best work. “Restless” is a swooning, midtempo rumination on middle age and relationships in which Brownstein wrestles with the difficulty of asking someone to accept the very things that you don’t like about yourself. “Can I Go On” is a straight-up pop song, or at least as close to one as Sleater-Kinney is likely to whip up. It’s warm and funny, with a big earworm of a chorus, but the lyrical rhymes range from basic (“tired”/“wired”) to groan-inducing (“happy”/“napping”). Elsewhere, Brownstein implores the listener to “call the doctor, dig me out of this mess” over the skittering electronic beat and staccato synths of “Love.”

The album’s highlights are a pair of Tucker-led songs that achieve the best blend of the band’s newfound synth influences and their more punk bona fides. “Reach Out” is built around a synth figure in the verses before building to a guitar-shredding climax, with a shipwreck serving as a metaphor for bodily autonomy. The lyrics are more sophisticated than those of the album’s title track, displaying the type of political acumen that Sleater-Kinney has always been known for. “Never have I felt so goddamn lost,” Tucker belts on “The Future Is Here.” She and Brownstein could just as easily be talking about their band as the larger world when harmonize about how “the future’s here, and we can’t go back.”

The Center Won’t Hold clocks in at just over a 30 minutes and lacks a certain spark—a song with the barn-burning intensity of “Entertain” or the heartrending emotion of “One More Hour.” In many places, these songs feel derivative in a way that the band’s music never has before. The guitar tone throughout “Restless” is more like Real Estate than Brownstein and Tucker’s signature sound, while “Bad Dance” is mostly notable for how much the title nods to a much-maligned Prince song. Which makes the moments when the band locks in and delivers the adrenaline-pumping thrills that have been their trademark feel all the more effective.

Score: 
 Label: Mom + Pop  Release Date: August 16, 2019  Buy: Amazon

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