Ahead of Sleater-Kinney’s ninth album, much conversation has orbited around one prominent fact: the centre did not hold after all. When fans learned that St Vincent was producing ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, the original reaction was excitement. Once the band’s long-serving drummer Janet Weiss announced news of her sudden departure, however, the mood quickly darkened.
Weiss’ statement, which cited Sleater-Kinney’s “new direction” as a factor in her decision, was picked apart. Overnight, Annie Clark was immediately recast as an imposing villain who ‘ruined’ things for the trio. The album’s first press shot was seized on, too – certain people decided that the glammy, kitschy new visual direction was surely the product of Carrie Brownstein dominating the band. It’s impossible to know what really went on behind closed doors – based on what Brownstein and her bandmate Corin Tucker have to say, Weiss’ exit was sad but amicable. In truth, the temptation to speculate about a dramatic scrap taking place in secret says far more about society’s habit of pitting women against each other than it does Sleater-Kinney.
And Weiss’ departure from the band notwithstanding, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ sees Sleater-Kinney take on many of these same ideas. From an early age, young girls are taught to be delicate, pretty, and softly spoken: we’re told that it’s not ‘ladylike’ to be brash and loud. In 1996, their album ‘Call the Doctor’ tore down music’s pelvis-thrusting boys club: “I’m the queen of rock and roll!” they declare on ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’. Two decades later, on 2015’s ‘No Cities to Love’, the band explored the constraints of the physical body: “No one here is taking notice,” Tucker and Brownstein chant. “No outline will ever hold us.”
Down to the lurching pit of this album’s stomach, and the deep, guttural sonic grounding of ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, women’s bodies reoccur through the record. They’re at once incredibly resilient and limited by deeply ingrained, sexist notions. The exhausted pang of ‘Broken’ is a fraying attempt to “keep it together” as Brett Kavanagh is admitted to the US Supreme Court despite facing multiple accusations of sexual assault. Addressing Dr Christine Blasey Ford (who testified against Kavanagh), the song’s protagonist wonders how much more she can weather. “Me, me, too, my body cried out when she spoke those lines,” sings Tucker.
On ‘Hurry On Home’, meanwhile, bodies are grand-slammable and horny for the arrival of a booty call. Limbs drag helplessly on ‘RUINS’ and the narrator of ‘The Dog/The Body’ is an empty sketch. And in the self-referential centrepiece ‘LOVE’ (which now screen like a eulogy for the band’s best known line-up) Brownstein definitely takes down the very same detractors who lost their shit when she recently bared her bum for a press shot. “There’s nothing more frightening and nothin’ more obscene,” she rallies, “than a well-worn body demanding to be seen.”
Propelled by sharp, angular sounds, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ craves connection above everything else in a world that can often seem desperately lonely. Each dirty and distorted throb (unlocked to full potential by Annie Clark’s gift for making guitars sound positively devilish) seems to yearn for another body to hold onto. Attempting to untangle the disconnection of these technological times, and holding up a muddle of chaos, Sleater-Kinney ironically found themselves in an unexpected whirlwind right as they unleashed this record on the world. It lends a new prescience to ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, but based on the ongoing reinvention of this band, you suspect they’ll dust themselves off soon enough.