Entertainment » Music

The Center Won't Hold

by Kevin Schattenkirk
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Aug 16, 2019
The Center Won't Hold

Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise when Sleater-Kinney's magnificent drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure from the band on July 1st. Her explanation that "the band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on" didn't exactly come from out of nowhere.

Five weeks prior, at the end of May, with the release of "Hurry on Home," the first taste of Sleater-Kinney's bold new album "The Center Won't Hold," Weiss specifically stated that the band would now "explore a different sound palette" that was ultimately "liberating" for bandmates Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, subtly and perhaps unintentionally leaving herself out of the equation. And perhaps it's easier for us to make sense of such band workings in hindsight. While her departure is indeed sad, it is noteworthy that for all of the compelling music throughout "The Center Won't Hold," Weiss' role sounds much more streamlined than on any other Sleater-Kinney album.

That said, the album is largely informed by a refusal to take a seat, as the 2016 presidential election suggested subordinated communities should do — Tucker explains, "it is unacceptable that I'm supposed to now quiet down and settle down and ask for less." In response, the band decidedly cover more sonic ground with St. Vincent's assistance.

The end result is unlike any other album in Sleater-Kinney's awe-striking catalogue. Synths, electro beats, and effects are prominent throughout, adorning and interweaving with Tucker's and Brownstein's guitars. In many instances, Weiss' drumming melds into the sonic fabric here — and this is perhaps the most notable characteristic of the album because Weiss, one of rock's greatest drummers, was never just a mere time-keeper. Much is often made about the interplay between Tucker and Brownstein, but Weiss' presence was an integral part of Sleater-Kinney's sonic identity.

Generally, the songs here are well written, brief, and to the point, hovering around the three-minute mark with only two tracks stretching out longer. The band's concerns, particularly in their adept synthesis of the personal and political, often articulate the post-2016 presidential election world for anyone who isn't white, straight, cis, male, and conservative. The lyrics probe anger, anxiety, depression, and resistance, and how meaningful relationships help us cope.

On a bed of electronics, the title track juxtaposes images of the beautiful and the profane interspersed with anxious repetitions of the song's title. Repetition can be a useful device in either obscuring or altering apparently clear meaning. What might initially be heard as one's fears of the ground giving way and getting sucked in ("the center won't hold!") becomes a warning of inevitable change toward the end of the song when the trio bust through the electronic textures with a blistering punk ("the center won't hold!"). Or perhaps, to draw a parallel to a Presidential candidate from Massachusetts, the center as "safe" ground is now just an illusion.

"Ruins," the album's centerpiece, equals the title track in its sonic ambition. As guitars pierce through a menacing bass synth, the song appears to target one-who-shall-not-be-named and the rhetoric of regressive politics he and his cronies regularly trade in: "Do you feast on nostalgia? Take pleasure from pain? Look out 'cause the children will learn your real name." The idea of "nostalgia" — for example, making America "great again," the last word a direct reference to the past — viciously romanticizes the dominance of white, heteronormative masculinity in subordinating — out of the threat of progress, reveling in the pain of — women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and gender non-conforming people.

Throughout the rest of the album, the personal and the political are often intertwined, especially in the ways many of us have been compelled to alter our responses to the daily — even hourly — chaos hurled from D.C. Songs such as "Hurry on Home," "Reach Out," "Bad Dance" and "The Future is Here" grapple with depression and the need for connection and intimacy in a world where "darkness is winning again" (from "Reach Out"). The music mirrors such needs with urgent, minor-keyed, new wave-inflected arrangements.

By contrast, "Can I Go On" turns this approach on its head, juxtaposing lyrics that question the will to live against a peppy pop/punk musical backdrop, a singalong chorus, and slashing guitars. Later, on "The Dog/The Body," which builds from its staccato guitar opening into another singalong, the problem isn't a dwindling will to live so much as the fatigue of continual resistance ("I'm just the fist without the will to fight"). And on "Love," a song that ebbs (with guitar and drum programming) and flows (with Weiss' live drums and the chorus vocals), the band serve a stark reminder about aging, experience and fighting invisibility: "There's nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene than a well-worn body demanding to be seen."

Overall, this album is striking in many ways. First and foremost, these songs are highly memorable after only a few listens. This speaks to the quality of writing throughout, as the songs would very likely hold up in more austere arrangements. Also, the band's work with St. Vincent as producer, of course, leads to colorful and intricate soundscapes. On the other hand, there are occasions when art rock and new wave aesthetics threaten to overtake the trio's band identity. Quite frankly, there are many moments, especially in the vocals, I could've sworn this was a new Kate Bush album. The way guitars intertwine with the beat often recalls early Blondie, and the electronic/live-instrumentation hybrid arrangements at times resemble Tears for Fears. Whatever Sleater-Kinney's references are, working with St. Vincent was obviously a wise choice if they wanted to create a sonically richer album.

After all of this, perhaps the most unexpected moment comes at the end, with the poignant album closer "Broken." Austere piano accompaniment is adorned with subtle electric guitar and synth flourishes as Tucker's passionate but tastefully restrained and empathetic vocal honors the #MeToo movement: "She stood up for us and she testified; me too, my body cried out when she spoke those lines." The song is unlike any other on the album but still works well as an album closer. With Weiss' departure, maybe "Broken" could point the band in a new direction. That is, if they choose to continue working together after their upcoming tour. In the meantime, "The Center Won't Hold" is a highly compelling listen, both a jarring response to the current state of affairs and a bittersweet end to the band's era with Weiss. A fine risk-taking addition to the band's stellar catalogue.

"The Center Won't Hold"
$24.99 (vinyl), $13.99 (CD or cassette), $9.99 (digital)
Sleater-Kinney Official Store

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.

Comments on Facebook