If No Cities to Love, the 2015 comeback album from Sleater-Kinney, was an assurance that the beloved group could reemergence from a decade-long hiatus with their roaring power and vibrant creativity intact, then The Center Won’t Hold is the provocative mission statement of sonic evolution as a constant. Sleater-Kinney didn’t pull their touring amps out of deep storage simply to rehash old glories. The new album maps the boundaries of the Sleater-Kinney sound and then roller skates along the edges, letting rubberized wheels occasionally slip just past the lines, as if defiantly proving that they’re only imaginary anyway.
Dusting for fingerprints on The Center Won’t Hold inevitably turns up a lot of thumb smudges from Annie Clark, professionally known as St. Vincent. Internet chatter reached cyclone proportions at the start of the year when social media photos revealed Clark was producing new Sleater-Kinney music, and an initial listen to the results produces an instinctive you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter reaction of distinct flavors combining to form a new whole that strongly maintains the qualities of its individual parts. But dismissals that Sleater-Kinney lost themselves in the St. Vincent studio wonderland ignore the simple truth that the band always operated in a state of perpetual reinvention. It was a major leap from All Hands on the Bad One to One Beat and yet another record-challenging long jump to reach The Woods. The reason Sleater-Kinney is formidable is because they don’t sit still, stamping out what’s expected.
It’s admittedly easy to pluck of the most dramatic disruptions of expectation, such as the disco fervor of the repeated line “You got me used to lovin’ you” on the chewy single “Hurry on Home” or the expansive explorations of “Bad Dance,” which sounds like the soundtrack to a ride on a melting carousel. “Can I Go On” traces the contradictions of modern life against a loping beat and guitars that squawk and reverberate, like Chvrches with the sunshine squeezed out. But Sleater-Kinney also looks backward to go forward. The title cut channels PJ Harvey from the mid-nineteen-nineties, at least until the more familiar Sleater-Kinney bulldozer of guitars and drums bursts through on the track’s last third, and “Restless” carries faint yet distinct echoes of the downbeat indie rock that emerged in the same era as a weary retort to the arena-ready booms of grunge pretenders.
The retrospection is more overt on “Love,” which tracks through the band’s history complete with Easter egg references. But even that is ultimately in service of an assertion of uncompromising forward motion, a commitment to now and beyond (“We can be young/ And we can be old/ As long as we have each other to hold”). A similar sentiment crops up on “The Future is Here” (“I need you more than I ever have/ Because the future’s here and we can’t go back”), highlighting the solace and security Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein found in rejuvenating their longtime collaboration.
After The Center Won’t Hold was recorded, a supporting tour was announced, and related promotional ventures were launched, drummer Janet Weiss announced she was leaving the band, evidently lacking enthusiasm for the newer material. The sense of reforged togetherness found on album sits strangely at odds with that bit of late-breaking news, but it’s Tucker and Brownstein who were there from the jump (though she’s been the drummer for most of the band’s life, Weiss was technically the fourth person to occupy the stool behind the kit), and the most poignant expressions of shared strength are the musical equivalent of Louise Sawyer and Thelma Dickinson intertwining fingers as their Ford Thunderbird races toward the canyon’s edge. They are in this together, proceeding under their own terms.
The album closes with the spare ballad “Broken,” which in its plaintive piano and smooth vocals is probably the furthest removed from anything Sleater-Kinney has put on record previously. But I’ll wager that track wouldn’t have stirred any resentment from purists who want their musical acts to echo on into infinity. “Broken” adheres to what a rock band is allowed to do, the kind of stretching of an artistic mandate that is deemed appropriate. But Sleater-Kinney doesn’t need to follow the snooty rules drawn up haphazardly by others. That’s another point make clear in “Love”: “And we can be rough/ And we can be smooth/ There’s nothing to hide/ And there’s nothing to prove.” Agreed. And bravo.