It’s a dream collaboration that makes you wonder why it didn’t happen sooner, the kind of hook-up that makes you go “duh (face-palm), oh shit yeah!”. I’m, of course, referring to St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) producing the latest Sleater-Kinney record. The twinning of these creative forces spawned ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, a record that has Clark’s fingerprints all over it. From the deconstructed guitar solos and twisted synth layers you expect from a St. Vincent project, but it’s still very much a Sleater-Kinney record, with the trio’s (errrr…duo…we’ll get to that in a bit) sonic template intact, albeit moulded and manipulated by their new ally behind the mixing desk.
‘The Center Won’t Hold’ is a record that is representative of today, it’s an album that’s chaotic in some cases and calm in others. It’s an LP that’s not afraid to bear its insecurities either, instead of searching for answers or asking questions, it merely states its unease and vulnerability with unflinching bravery. Carrie Brownstein (guitar/vocals), when speaking to DIY divulges “it’s about thinking about the body as a place of resistance. How much can a body withstand; trauma, trespass. Most of the narrators on ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ are on the precipice of not being able to carry that burden anymore”. This feeling of near collapse ripples throughout the album, both sonically and lyrically, but it’s in an ironic prophetic manner that the outfit’s ninth album has seen the trio lose one-third of their personnel. As promotion began for the album, drummer Janet Weiss decided to leave Sleater-Kinney as the band we’re heading in a “new direction” and it was time to step away from her drum stool. Both Brownstein and fellow SK member Corin Tucker (guitar/vocals) have been left scratching their heads, as Weiss was wholly onboard with Clark producing the record and appeared fully invested in the Sleater-Kinney of 2019. It would seem for one member of the group; the edge of the precipice was too close for comfort.
The feeling of isolation and despondency bears down on ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ with a heavy weight; ‘Reach Out’s poppy swagger is a distress flare being fired into the night sky “reach out and touch me/I’m stuck on the edge” and “darkness is winning again” typifying someone teetering on the edge of collapse. The upbeat and the playful merge with the melanchoic on ‘Can I Go On’, as bouncing bass and piano create a jaunty framework for the bleak lyrics of “maybe I’m not sure I want to go on anymore”. Darkness descends on the malevolent hum of ‘RUINS’, a song constructed on broken static and razor sharp, malfunctioning guitar motifs. The macabre rises to the top as the devilish chant of “eat the weak/devour the sane” punctuate the song’s chorus. Sleater-Kinney opt to shake a defiant fist on the sinister grind of ‘Bad Dance’, as a war cry yelps “and if the world is ending/let’s dance/let’s dance” with a coy fuck you. ‘The Future Is Here’ has all the bombast of ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ stripped away, for a spectral crackle and hum. The essence of being out of control and vulnerable present themselves via “I need you more than I ever have/because the future’s here and we can’t go back”. The notion of escape fuels the sexual gyrate of ‘Hurry on Home’; guitar squalls and jack-boot stomped drums propel “disconnect me from my bones/so I can float/so I can roam” like someone with one foot out the door, ready for a speedy exit. The shaman mantras that open the record and its eponymous track pivot on the feeling of dichotomy “I need something pretty/to help me easy my pain/I need something ugly/to put me in my place” – as the song swells from demo-esque fragments of sound to climaxing in a colossal storm of raging guitar waves and thundering drums.
The Center Won’t Hold’ is an album made of sturdy, resilient stuff; it’s built to weather the storm no matter how strong.
Words and Thoughts of Adam Williams
The Center Won’t Hold by Sleater-Kinney comes out August 16 via Mom + Pop