In ‘The Center Won’t Hold,’ Sleater-Kinney re-embrace their queerness

Skip to the album’s second half and gasp: a synth bop on a Sleater-Kinney album? After years of extracting lurches, screeches, and divebombings from their guitars, the development feels gauche. On third listen, though, the track’s abrasions turn into charms, Corin Tucker’s iron-lunged vocal a reminder that discomfort has served as Sleater-Kinney’s non-oblique strategy since 1995. The track is One Beat’s “Prisstina,” about a pretty girl into science who inspires pity, admiration, and, after she discovers rock and roll, lust.

To produce their ninth album, Sleater-Kinney hired Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, a move that occasioned hand-wringing on social media after drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure. Chockful of “Prisstina”s, The Center Won’t Hold makes good on its title: an acknowledgment of discord that won’t shrivel into acceptance, a contempt for “center” in all its iterations. This album’s curvature, indebted in part to Clark’s own work, re-positions Sleater-Kinney as a queer act, contorting structures with a febrility astonishing for a band in its third decade. To be queer is to often regard desires as submissions or abstentions. In their early years Tucker, Weiss, and guitarist-singer Carrie Brownstein fucked this up by wanting everything at once, signified by the breathless way in Tucker and Brownstein traded vocals on Dig Me Out and notably The Hot Rock. Although they keep their distance from each other’s songs on The Center Won’t Hold—another example of title-as-prophecy—the songs themselves still convulse. They don’t wanna be your Joey Ramone because they swallowed Joey Ramone. They wanna be your Sleater-Kinney, goddammit.

A devotee to ebullient studio experimentation, Clark coaxes the band into potholing tracks with non-stringed filigrees; Sleater-Kinney aren’t the first act to find a new a way to, as they put it in 1997, put the fun back in sin. The title track uses sampled industrial clank that recalls Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward, adolescent dystopia queered into middle-aged disquiet. And that’s just the start. The guitar reverb with which “Can I Go On” begins has faint “One of These Nights” echoes, but before you think Sleater-Kinney have gone Camaro rock, those guitars bounce from speaker to speaker, reveling in distortion — until the sequencer line. A Mellotron complements Brownstein’s “I’ve learned to love the ugliest things.” The whistling synth, a guitar tuned to sound like Peter Hook circa 1985, and Tucker’s creepy, fabulous lower register in “The Future is Now” coheres, as her voice ascends the scales until the familiar Tucker yawp bursts forth, into a statement of profound unease: a New Wave past as promissory note; a present lived on smartphone screens.

As committed as Sleater-Kinney have been to performances of robust physicality, it’s rare that they have written about the female body, brides stripped bare, with the meticulousness evident on The Center Won’t Hold. Credit the St. Vincent influence again: from early albums like Marry Me to 2017’s MASSEDUCTION, Clark has reveled in inversions: subject as object as subject, observer observing herself, guitars engineered as keyboards, vocals as field recordings. Think of Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, seen above: a recognizably feminine figure studying her own distended form, but in Clark’s case responsible for her distensions; she, not Picasso-the-asshole, owns her body. Sleater-Kinney’s “LOVE” addresses this point: “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene/than a well-worn body demanding to be seen.” On “LOVE,” Brownstein mythologizes the Sleater-Kinney Story over a very un-Sleater drum program, which is the point: when Weiss enters with her reassuring clatter and Tucker wails the title like Cindy Wilson doing the Shy Tuna, it’s an testament to contradictions triumphantly straddled. Listening to Brownstein sing, “I’m just a sketch/I’m just an outline” on “The Dog/The Body” before the song careens toward a power-chord-kissed refrain puts the band’s dialectical thinking on full display.

For a quarter century, Sleater-Kinney have scored the post-post punk soundtrack to American queerness. As their keening harmonies and sprung rhythms reflected the maladroit détente between the political world and queer community’ during the Clinton and early Bush II years, so do the surprise crunches and abrupt electronic-to-acoustic transitions within songform of The Center Won’t Hold distort the putative fulfillment of a post-Obergefell America: accommodating without assimilating is Sleater-Kinney’s M.O., as ever. If The Center Won’t Hold adds up to Sleater-Kinney’s most uneven album, it’s the kind of uneven album that listeners may press close; in retrospect, 2015’s No Cities to Love sounds like the playing-it-safe return, an audition for a fully memorized script. Here, Clark’s embellishments are requirements, necessary perturbations: prime Sleater-Kinney relied on musical correlatives to adduce their acute unease. The expansiveness of the new arrangements doubles as an attempt to make further contact, to embrace dissonances and differences. Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss, to quote one of their best new songs, want to reach out, and if the effort has a tinge of desperation verging on hysteria, well, these are hysterical times. “Do you feast on nostalgia?” Tucker asks on “RUINS,” not a rhetorical question so much as a taunt.

Reluctant listeners, beware. For every wan moment—I nominate the piano ballad “Broken” and the received party-until-the-world-ends gesture called “Bad Dance”—the album offers pleasures like the hungover growl of Brownstein’s riffs on “Reach Out” and Weiss’ syncopation over the terrific middle stretch of “Can I Go On” (if this is her last Sleater-Kinney album, what a farewell).  This might be Sleater-Kinney’s last album, who cares. The future is here.  “I need you now more than I ever have,” Tucker pleads on that track, extending her hand through encroaching darkness.

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