January 2019. It was a tweet that came from nowhere, and made a lot of people very excited. A photograph of Annie Clark aka St Vincent sat at a mixing desk with the three members of Sleater-Kinney stood behind her. The news that two of this generation’s most exciting acts were joining forces was a win-win. Nothing could go wrong here, surely?
Cut to six months later. July 2019. It was a tweet that came from nowhere, and made a lot of people very sad. Janet Weiss, who had been Sleater-Kinney’s drummer since 1996, announced she was leaving the band with immediate effect. The terse statement simply noted that Sleater-Kinney were “heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on”.
It was a development that shocked a lot of people simply because Sleater-Kinney have always been very much the sum of their parts. Weiss’ powerhouse drumming has been as much an essential part of the SK sound as Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s harmonies and fiery guitar riffs.
So, what to make of this new ‘Sleater-Vincent’ sound? At first listen, it’s easy to see why Weiss was unimpressed. Clark has brought drum pads and drum machines into the mix, and the overall sound is seemingly more restrained and more mannered than previously. However, for anyone worried whether the now duo may have ‘jumped the shark’ can rest easy – The Center Won’t Hold is, once the initial shock of the new sound has dissipated, one of the best albums of their career to date.
That explosive element that’s always been crucial to Sleater-Kinney is still there – the opening title track begins slowly with clanking drums providing the backdrop to Tucker and Brownstein’s vocals. Then suddenly, it explodes into life for the song’s final minute and it sounds like an old friend coming home.
Hurry On Home is very much traditional Sleater-Kinney, an energy-fuelled rocker that has lust fairly pouring out of the speakers, despite Brownstein singing such self-deprecating lyrics as “you know I’m unloveable, unfuckable, unlistenable, unwatchable”. Bad Dance is another incendiary number that almost feels like an anthem for our troubled times: “and if the world is ending now, then let’s dance the bad dance, we’ve been rehearsing our whole lives”.
Elsewhere, Clark’s influence is writ large: there’s more synths to be heard on The Center Won’t Hold than any previous Sleater-Kinney album. At first, RUINS sounds bewildering, full of howling, clanking atmospherics with the key lyric of “do you feast on nostalgia” standing out. Yet after a couple of listens, it starts to make a perfect kind of sense.
This is also the album where the chorus is king. Some fans may see this as a sell-out, but that pop sensibility shines through on several tracks: Reach Out is almost perfect power-pop, and The Dog/The Body has a gloriously uplifting chorus that buries its way into the brain and never leaves. Elsewhere, there’s a lot of fun to be had in spotting the meta-references in the lyrics of LOVE: “Call the doctor, dig me out of this mess” runs one winking line.
Ultimately, Sleater-Kinney have always been a band that have evolved and refused to stay still. Although the departure of Weiss is sad, it hasn’t diminished any of Brownstein and Tucker’s power: The Centre Won’t Hold sees them as vital, compelling and as searingly relevant as ever.