In WB Yeats’ most famous line, “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. Things were pretty bad when he wrote that in 1919, the first world war segueing smoothly into the Irish war of independence, but Sleater-Kinney twist the line into something even worse. The centre “won’t” hold – it could, but it won’t. Order might theoretically reign, but we’d prefer to reject it and watch the world burn.
This, then, is an album full of friction: between bodies, generations and, it turns out, the band themselves. The Pacific Northwest trio went on hiatus for a decade after what many consider their masterpiece, The Woods, in 2005; co-frontwoman Carrie Brownstein became hipster-famous in the interim for her sketch comedy show Portlandia. They returned to huge acclaim with No Cities to Love in 2015, and for this follow-up, enlisted Annie Clark, AKA St Vincent, as producer. But before its release, drummer Janet Weiss quit after 22 years, saying “the band is moving in a new direction and it is time for me to move on”.
It would be futile, and a bit tacky, to try and infer exactly what Weiss is unhappy about. But it’s fair to say that Clark makes the drums the least interesting thing about this record: though they are almost all clearly recorded live, they are often made to feel like drum machines, merely there to keep time. One of the pleasures of listening to Sleater-Kinney is the feeling that you’ve opened your garage door to find them all practising together and nicking your lagers, but Weiss now sounds a little estranged from the family unit.
Otherwise, this is a bold and brilliant leap into a new sound for the band. It’s perhaps the perfect project for Clark, who on her solo records can infill and tinker to the point of fussiness – here, with the restriction of a trio, there’s only so much they can play. The band’s guitars are made to feel like synths on the Enjoy the Silence-channelling Reach Out, given a new-wave sheen on the brilliant chorus of Hurry On Home, and turned into dinky Devo toys on Love. Weiss gets a rare bit of invention on the title track, her drums miked up miles away so they sound like iron being forged in a vast warehouse, and that mood fills other tracks: a bedrock of sleazy static is the sound of friction itself.
This is a rather post-apocalyptic landscape – on Ruins, strife manifests as Godzilla – but Brownstein and Corin Tucker romp across it with a series of excellent pop melodies. They wisely make Can I Go On, a song about brutalising ennui and the futility of existence, into a Roxy Music disco strut with an exultant top line. The Dog/The Body, the most traditional song here, has a chorus made for drunken karaoke on a school night despite being about a worn-out love affair. The chorus from Bad Dance is extremely hammy: written as if for a musical called Anthropocene!, Brownstein casts herself as an agent of sexy chaos, and really sells its jazz-hands fervour.
Maybe musical theatre is in her future: she is a very actorly singer who has long had a streak of ludicrous, ironic coquettishness. This reaches its apex in Hurry On Home, where she seems to toss and turn on a bed, hopelessly horny, squeak-purring for someone to “disconnect me from my bones”. But sex for Brownstein isn’t just a roll in the hay – it’s a counterweight to the abuse she faces by living in public (“you know I’m unfuckable, unlovable, unlistenable, unwatchable”), that lets her “erase the marks, begin again”. On the title track she similarly longs for “something muddy to cover up the stain”.
This sense of sex being perhaps the only palliative in our fractious, disconnected world is essayed even more powerfully by Tucker, who has an innately more serious voice, an ideal foil for the sly goofball Brownstein. On The Future Is Here, her day begins on her phone, looking at the news, and ends on it too, perhaps looking at messages or photos from a decaying relationship. “You can cover me, just come over here and give me everything”, she promises, a sext of pure need, for orgasm, intimacy, protection. Age, too, plays its part: on The Dog/The Body, Brownstein admits she’s now “just the trick without the magic”, a wonderfully wry, smutty double meaning, while on Love she says she’s “done with being told that this should be the end” and celebrates “a well-worn body demanding to be seen”. Brownstein is singing about being on stage, but it’s also a credo for the boardroom, pavement and indeed bedroom.
The album closes on Broken, a piano ballad about doggedly existing through trauma, beautifully sung by Tucker – another brand new and intense flavour for the band. Losing Weiss will be a trauma in itself, but Sleater-Kinney have announced that they are survivors, making fires out of friction.