Bury Our Friends: On the New Sleater-Kinney and Being a Fan

When I last checked in on Sleater-Kinney, my once-favorite band, I despised their single “The Future is Here” and had pretty much divested myself emotionally from their new album, the ironically-titled The Center Won’t Hold. Since then, the band has embarked on one of the oddest, most comically disastrous album hype cycles in memory: they had a boring performance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon after which longtime drummer Janet Weiss quit the band, citing the obvious “change in direction” I pointed out, leaving Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker to promote the album themselves. They’ve spent the last three weeks grimacing while giving “no really, this album is great, we totally love it” interviews while the release date lurked ahead like an oncoming apocalypse.

Now that the future actually is here, it’s hard for the music to live up to all of the drama and speculation surrounding its release. In the end, The Center Won’t Hold is what I expected from the early singles: it’s poppy, corny, and probably the most disappointing album I’ve ever heard given how big a fan I was of all the people involved.

But before I bury this thing and pretend it never happened, I want to clear up some of the spin I’ve seen from other fans and writers. Disliking this musical direction does not make someone a misogynist or a bad fan. It’s insulting to the members of Sleater-Kinney, who are grown women who have been in the arts scene for over two decades, to uncritically pretend their art is great and to attribute any criticism to sexism as if they’re children who can’t take the heat. Given Weiss’ departure, I also think it’s outright delusional to pretend everything went great here. If some fans do like this album, then all power to them — but they must have been enjoying Sleater-Kinney for much different reasons than I did.

What made Sleater-Kinney a great band was that every song felt like it mattered to them and it gave their music a sense of urgency and originality. Most of the credit for that goes to Weiss and Tucker — Weiss’ thundering drums added a level of intensity to every song and Tucker had a voice like no one else’s, a sort of banshee wail that filled the room and jolted any listener to pay attention. Brownstein was never a third wheel by any means and is a great guitarist, but the Tucker/Weiss core is what defined Sleater-Kinney to me and was the backbone of most of my favorite songs by them.

There are a lot of theories on what is going on with The Center Won’t Hold that caused the new sound and look and the eventual departure of Weiss. Let’s just say that anyone who speculated that it was a result of Brownstein bigfooting the band will feel vindicated by this record. She is by far the most prominent member on this album, taking a frontwoman role on most songs while Tucker is left in the background and Weiss barely even registers. This is part of why The Center Won’t Hold barely sounds like Sleater-Kinney — Brownstein, as talented as she is, was never the reason people listened to this band, but she seems to think that’s the case. The unique group dynamic and chemistry is totally missing here with little interplay between Brownstein and Tucker and uninspiring drum parts for Weiss. This isn’t the band evolving or growing; it’s the band becoming something entirely different, something decidedly lamer and less interesting to listen to.

If someone is a fan of Metallica, it’s probably because they play those crushing metal riffs that can fill an arena. If Metallica became a solo Lars Ulrich project where he played the accordion, their fans would stop enjoying the band because it would lack the qualities that made them fans in the first place. People wouldn’t say “I guess those Metallica fans just hate change because they’re not down with this Lars Ulrich accordion album.” My dislike here isn’t out of nostalgia for the good old days. I wanted Sleater-Kinney to change things up, to try new things and push the boundaries, like they did on The Woods. That’s part of what made them a great band. But this album does not fit into that framework because it doesn’t even feel like Sleater-Kinney anymore.

I suppose to some people fandom is this ride-or-die thing where you have to support everything the artists do. And I do think fandom is more than purely transactional — you gain a respect and admiration for the artists over time and want to support them even when their work isn’t connecting with you like it once did. But it’s also up to the band to meet the expectations of the fans, who have grown attached to their work being a certain way, and I imagine one of the great difficulties of being in a band is figuring out how far to stretch those expectations before reaching a breaking point for some listeners.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the members of Sleater-Kinney had to know the cost of doing business with this album, and so I don’t feel particularly bad that I hate it. I think they knew this would upset some “purist” fans and were prepared for this outcome. But let’s clear up another thing: I’m not even opposed to the idea of Sleater-Kinney making a poppier album, and I like pop music a lot more than most people I know. The problem is that these aren’t very good pop songs. What ultimately is most alienating about the album is that it lacks any sense of vitality or purpose, the traits that used to define Sleater-Kinney. Usually when a band enters into a new musical space, it energizes them (like it did on The Woods), but everything here feels flat. A lot of this comes down to the sound and production by Annie Clark, which has buried the band’s intensity and emotions under a layer of glossy sheen.

This album still has its moments, usually involving Corin, like “Reach Out” and “Ruins,” but even on those, I often find myself fighting to enjoy the band through the production and gimmickry. The new style also doesn’t really fit their lyrics, which admittedly were never amazing, but usually the band was kicking so much ass that I could look past the occasional awkward line. Now the heavy-handed lyricism is very noticeable and it drags down the songs, which already need all the help they can get since the sound is so generic and unengaging. “Can I Go On,” for example, pretty much sounds like children’s music or a commercial jingle. “Bad Dance” is another attempt at a Carrie-fronted dance-pop song that is trying so hard to be upbeat and zany that it’s embarrassing to listen to. The sing-along chorus on “The Dog/The Body” is sickeningly sweet, and one of the many moments where the band tips into being maudlin. The overall sense I get is that the band and Clark are putting in an inordinate amount of effort to try to make Sleater-Kinney sound like mediocre artists who could never make music as great as Dig Me OutOne Beat, or The Woods. Why one of the greatest bands of all-time would do this instead of being themselves is the vexing mystery of The Center Won’t Hold.

On “Entertain,” one of the highlights of The Woods, Brownstein mocked backwards-looking unoriginal bands with a venomous delivery:

You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984!
You star child, well you’re using it like a whore!
It’s better than before, oh it’s better than before!
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new, 1972!
Where’s the ‘fuck you’?
Where’s the black and blue?
Where’s the black and blue?
Where’s the black and blue?
If your heart is done, Johnny get your gun!
Join the rank and file, on your TV dial
All of these criticisms can now be applied to The Center Won’t Hold and it’s part of why it’s so dismaying: a group that once stood for defiant, individual rock music has become another in a sea of generic pop-aspiring bands. Sleater-Kinney was never about riding waves or trying to be trendy, but that’s what this album feels like more than anything else. Worst of all, it’s not even all that good at doing the bad thing they were trying to do. The harsh reality is that this album isn’t even a particularly fascinating blow-up — this beloved band came undone over some forgettable pop songs.

I Wish This New Sleater-Kinney Song Wasn’t Crappy

The act of reuniting your band is inherently sort of pathetic. Even if it’s done for reasons other than shameless cash-grabbing, it’s often an attempt by the members to recapture their glory years, like a popular kid returning to high school years later. Maybe the saddest part of some reunions is that one often gets the sense that the artists involved could be doing something new and cool, but instead they’re stuck acting as old versions of themselves, playing the same songs because they felt a need to give in to fans who always want more.

I know all of this, but when Sleater-Kinney reunited, I convinced myself this would be different. I ignored some of the obvious warning signs, like Carrie Brownstein’s burgeoning career of making hipster jokes on Portlandia and appearing in American Express commercials. When their reunion album dropped, I wanted it to be great more than anything, but after a couple listens I knew it wasn’t. I figured it was their first album back and maybe they just needed to get back in the swing of things.

Now they have a new album coming out produced by Annie Clark, which would have been my dream about ten years ago, but now feels like a worst case scenario for all people involved. The latest song, “The Future is Here,” confirmed all of my worst suspicions about this project: it’s a trainwreck that I’ll use as exhibit A when I argue for making band reunions illegal in front of the Supreme Court.

About the only positive thing I can say about this track is that the band tried something different rather than rehashing their old music, and I think it came from a place of wanting to push themselves artistically. But what they’ve done is take everything that made Sleater-Kinney cool and unique and replaced it with boring, generic sounds. This isn’t Bob Dylan going electric; this is like if Kevin Shields followed up Loveless with an album of acoustic Imagine Dragons covers.

The twin guitars and harmonies of Corin Tucker and Brownstein are absent here, replaced by some stale synths that make the song sound like a mid-2000s Yeah Yeah Yeahs album track. The other vital element of Sleater-Kinney’s music has always been Janet Weiss’ drumming — the urgency and intensity of the band’s sound came through in her aggressive style, which conveyed a sense of passion, like the song you were listening to really mattered. On this song, she’s marginalized to just playing a simple, lifeless drum beat, which renders the entire song limp and purposeless. The lyrics don’t exactly help either — it’s not like S-K were ever masters of subtlety, but the “actually, iPhones are bad” theme doesn’t inspire a lot of deep thought, which might be why half the song is spent on “na na na”s.

I’m trying to mentally picture what happened in this recording session. Clearly the band wanted to push themselves in new directions and Annie Clark was happy to oblige. I was critical of Clark’s last album, which I thought pursued a generic, soulless pop vision that prioritized superficial gimmickry over real artistry. Now it appears S-K has been caught in her vortex of making corny, instantly dated pop. The album cover has the image of Brownstein with her backwards butt exposed, which is an image that feels inspired by Clark’s recent propensity towards contrived, phony “weirdness.” My best guess is the band and Clark were shooting for some poppy-but-deep artsy thing, but they really did not succeed on any level. It’s enough to make me lose faith in everyone involved, all of whom were at one point among my favorite artists in the world.

It had been awhile since I’d really listened to Sleater-Kinney, so I decided to throw on The Woods on my drive to work to see if maybe I had just outgrown the band. That would have been sad in its own way, but preferable to the reality this song presents. It turns out The Woods still kicks ass. Just listen to “The Fox” and compare it to this song. That album was the ultimate farewell, a band going out in a blaze of glory by unleashing every emotion they had left and leaving on top of their game. Instead, it’s become another cautionary example for future bands and their fans: sometimes its better to quit when you’re ahead.

#11: Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

Given the impossible task of topping the band’s previous work, No Cities to Love is a satisfying return to form for Sleater-Kinney that dodges the pitfalls of many reunion albums. The trio of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss quickly settle into their old chemistry and unsurprisingly deliver one of the better rock albums of the year, with the band’s typical political commentary and Tucker’s roaring vocals being an especially welcome return.

Rather than comparing this album to The Woods, which really felt like a band going out in a blaze of glory, I like to think of No Cities to Love as starting something new for the band. And on this album, I get the sense that they’re still working out some of the kinks and getting back into the Sleater-Kinney “zone” that resulted in such consistently compelling music years ago. If all this is true, No Cities to Love is a good start, and I look forward to seeing what the band can do next.

You can read my initial post about the album here.