ALBUM REVIEW: Sleater-Kinney Sounds like Someone New on ‘The Center Won’t Hold’

Depending on your perspective, the riot grrrl heroes’ St. Vincent-produced ninth LP is either a triumph or a tragedy.

If you go down to the woods today and listen to Sleater-Kinney’s new album, you’re in for a big surprise. Maybe you listened to a couple of tracks based on Annie Clark’s endorsement and decided to dive in. 

You liked that industrialized opener that comes on like mid-’80s Depeche Mode and those purring vocals get you like St. Vincent’s records get you. So you jump in and gobble up the album. It feels good. Like a tougher, grittier Haim. It’s exciting when you find a new band and so you dig back too. 

Their 2005 album, The Woods, by contrast, is scary, difficult. Where’s the polish? Why does it sound like the drums have been kicked down the stairs?

That’s not fair though, is it? Maybe you’ve been stumbling around in The Woods since the start, and that first incarnation of Sleater-Kinney—all shrill vocals, nervous guitar and skittering drums—is your thing. You were overjoyed when No Cities To Love came out. You’d given up hope. You’d pretended to find Portlandia funny, but secretly, you just wanted Sleater-Kinney back. And back they came.

But now this has happened. They always sounded like a band for whom the centre wouldn’t hold. Chaotic, energetic and infuriatingly catchy. But now, they sound like the centre will hold. The artwork borders on glamorous. The production is rich and shiny. It sounds like a St Vincent LP, and indeed Annie Clark’s fingerprints are all over it, from the layers of rhythm to the treatment of the guitars.

We’re not in the woods anymore. Maybe that’s why drummer Janet Weiss felt the need to walk away. Because for all its energy and the snarling attack of the songs, it just doesn’t feel like Sleater-Kinney anymore. 

Remember that bit at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers when Veronica Cartwright is faced by Donald Sutherland and can do nothing but scream? It’s a bit like that. 

Strip away Clark’s production and it’s as it should be. Actual Donald Sutherland. The songs are great. All of them. They bite as hard as any of the earlier albums. The performances are also superb. And if you like St. Vincent and Sleater-Kinney, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t like this. 

But then Donald Sutherland fixes you with his glare, opens his mouth and makes that horrifying wail, and you know something fundamental has changed.

Quoting Yeats’ The Second Coming in the title should be a giveaway. These portentous times we live in plunge us all into uncertainty. Things fall apart. 

That they came back, their own Second Coming, is in itself a thing of wonder. That they’ve evolved is a credit. And depending on your perspective, this is a triumph or a tragedy. Or maybe it’s just different. 

Much was made of the nine year hiatus between The Woods and No Cities To Love. If the centre holds for another nine years, I’ll make up my mind about this one.

Score: 5/5 or 1/5 (depending on what you were hoping for)