Sleater-Kinney, “The Center Won’t Hold”

They remain faithfully yours in taut, ruthless, uncompromising rock and roll.
Sleater-Kinney, “The Center Won’t Hold”

They remain faithfully yours in taut, ruthless, uncompromising rock and roll.

Words: Josh Hurst

August 16, 2019

The Center Won’t Hold

As far as second-albums-after-a-comeback go, Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold delivers just about everything you could possibly want. Well…unless you’re Janet Weiss. First in line was 2015’s No Cities to Love, a lean and muscular record that consolidated the band’s strengths following a decade of silence; it re-established their chops as the most gutsy and essential of modern punk bands, and set the table for a bold mid-life adventure. Arriving four years later, The Center Won’t Hold isn’t a consolidation so much as an expansion, ratifying what’s great about Sleater-Kinney while also giving them room to mutate, mature, and surprise. It reminds you of everything you’ve ever loved about this band, and persuades you that they’re capable of even more. So maybe it’s sad but unsurprising that, with the recent departure of Weiss, it also marks the end of Sleater-Kinney as we know them.

The trio you hear on this record is—still—Weiss, Carrie Brownstein, and Corin Tucker. They remain faithfully yours in taut, ruthless, uncompromising rock and roll. But to their credit, they’re also uninterested in coasting on legacy. Enter St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, who produced the album, pushed the band into some subtle and not-so-subtle experimentation, and insisted on an S-K record that could speak a righteous word in dark times. 

The resulting album is actually just what you’d hope for—undeniably Sleater-Kinney, but scuffed-up with some weird pop textures and effects that sound like they’re on loan from one of Clark’s solo ventures. You can hear worlds colliding in the opening title track, which is all about how things fall apart. It opens with a lurching, industrial beat, tension building and then erupting in a fury of electric mayhem. It sets the tone for an album that resets the boundaries of Sleater-Kinney’s wheelhouse. “Can I Go On” contorts their nervy energy into an anxious blast of new wave. “RUINS” soundtracks societal wreckage with the eerie ambiance of a haunted house. “Bad Dance” embraces collapse with bitter vaudeville and razor-edged theatricality. These are as close to art-songs as Sleater-Kinney gets, but there’s not a one of them that wants for the group’s typical kinetic energy and merciless efficiency. 

The lyrics portend an inevitable apocalypse; Bruce Springsteen wrote about “darkness on the edge of town,” but Sleater-Kinney diagnose a malaise that’s pervaded the whole empire, every nook and cranny. The title song was written in the wake of the forty-fifth President’s election, and its invocation of chaos isn’t a protest so much as a prophecy: Entropy and decay come for everything eventually. In their imagining, even acts of grace and strength highlight the encroaching darkness; check the album-ending ballad “Broken,” a tribute to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, whose sainthood is all the more shattering for its traumatic reception. And then there’s “LOVE,” a CliffsNotes version of the Sleater-Kinney backstory. On some alternate timeline, the song plays out like a cheeky little piece of fan service. In our reality, considerably less benevolent, it lands like a cruel punchline—a reminder that even the things you think will never end, typically do.