Sleater-Kinney deliver the goods almost immediately on their new LP, on a title track that begins with industrial clangs, then explodes into rock fury rivaling anything in their catalog, a barrage of Nevermind-grade guitar blasts pacing Corin Tucker’s cathartic, paint-peeling howls. She paraphrases the famous “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold” line from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Tucker might be describing a psyche, a relationship, or planetary climate change: Pick your nearly lost cause.
The Center Won’t Hold is S-K’s first studio set since No Cities to Love, their 2015 comeback, and their first of the MeToo era, which Tucker invokes potently on the torch-song closer, “Broken.” Producer Annie Clark of St. Vincent, who was 12 when S-K’s 1996 breakthrough, Call the Doctor, was released, makes it a summit between tag-team generations of rock heroines. Given No Cities’ lean-in to Seventies New Wave and Clark’s pivot into ’10s meta-pop onMasseducation, it’s a perfect match, made most explicit on the single “Hurry on Home.” Splashed with St. Vincent sonics, it’s a psychodrama of sexual-power dynamics. (Guitarist Carrie Brownstein’s past romantic links to both Clark and Tucker add backstory, as does a brilliantly weird Miranda July booty-call video.)
If there’s a through line to The Center Won’t Hold, it’s social media alienation and all it engenders. Sleater-Kinney have always made meaning in physical spaces where we can experience sweaty liberation from dated rock tropes. Here, physical connection feels more essential than ever. “Reach out and touch me/I’m stuck on the edge. . . . The darkness is winning again,” Tucker sings on “Reach Out,” part girl-group lover’s plea, part synth-pop suicide-at-the-beach fantasy, with a sly nod to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” “The Future Is Here” gives voice to someone who begins and ends her day “on a tiny screen” and confesses, “Never have I felt so goddamned lost and alone.” On “Can I Go On,” every last person “is wired/To machines, it’s obscene.”
It’s a status quo that makes the group’s continued existence — especially given drummer Janet Weiss’ post-LP departure — a big deal. They don’t take it for granted. “Do you feast on nostalgia?” asks Tucker with a wink on “Ruins,” a dubby march conjuring vintage PJ Harvey and the nightmare of 2019 America.
But nostalgia correctly weaponized is a mighty thing. See “LOVE,” the set’s most affecting song. A Kraftwerk-ing jam that reads as intra-band mash note, it chronicles small-town punk rage, broke-ass van touring, and the cleansing fire of art. And it ends in a blood oath to one another and to fans: “There’s nothing more frightening and nothin’ more obscene/Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen.” Brownstein follows it with a hearty “fuck!” — a “fuck” that, in its enraged glee, sums up everything that makes the band great, now and forever.