I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love it when rock artists make sad electronic albums. And this year has brought a new classic in that (very specific) subgenre, an album that trades guitars for a heavier keyboard sound and brings new voices to the proceedings, but does so in a way that accentuates the melancholy lyrics. I am, of course, talking about The National’s I Am Easy To Find. Also, Sleater-Kinney released an album this year too, and it’s okay, I guess.
The Center Won’t Hold has been the subject of much curiosity since it was announced that St. Vincent would be producing it, and that curiosity turned to suspicion when Janet Weiss quit the band a month before the album was released. Did the new sound turn her off? Was Carrie Brownstein taking over the band? Was their new aesthetic too gaudy for Janet? The exact reasons for Janet leaving remain shrouded in mystery, though I certainly wouldn’t blame her for hitting the road after the band’s aesthetic goes from Mike Mills portraits of the fragility of our world in relation to the grandness of the universe,
to “*listens to Masseduction once*”.
Folks: if you have Mike Mills (the graphic designer/filmmaker, though this works with the musician too) at your disposal for an album, do not get rid of him under any circumstances.
Now that the new album is here, the listener is given one question to ask themselves; was this album worth losing Janet? Admittedly, even if the album was great, losing one of the greatest living rock drummers seems like a trade-off that would never be worth it. But I believe that Bill Berry leaving R.E.M. was for the best if it led to Up‘s existence, so if anybody should answer with a “yes”, it’s me. Alas, it’s gonna be a “no” from me, dawg.
It opens strong, at least. The first song, also the title track, was something of a perverse choice for a single, considering it’s two-thirds Bone Machine-esque industrial clanging (and Carrie vocals that sound like they were recorded in a tunnel) and one-third what most want a Sleater-Kinney song to sound like, but I enjoy the build-up and find the pay-off incredibly satisfying, so it works as a good mood-setter. Often, S-K will open their albums with songs designed to jolt you to attention as quickly as possible (if you’re dozing off when you put on The Woods, you won’t be within one second of “The Fox”), so this slow-burn approach is a new wrinkle, but a welcome one, especially as it introduces the highlight of the album, “Hurry On Home”. A wisely-chosen first single, it suggests the most successful version of this album, where the St. Vincent DNA mutates Sleater-Kinney into something new and exciting. It’s short (just about 2:45), it’s hard, it’s a helluva singalong, and it’s got just the perfect amount of paprika on the sandwich with the synths coming in during the chorus. I’m thoroughly unconvinced by Carrie’s statements that it’s any kind of meaningful political statement (you see, “you got me used to love you”, just like Donald Trump has us all used to loving him), but that’s easy to ignore when it’s this fine a confection.
“Hurry On Home” being this good ends up biting much of the rest of the album in the ass. Imagine “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” being the lead single off Around the Sun and you get the idea. That’s admittedly a mean comparison to make; the apathy emanating from all corners of Around the Sun is so overwhelming that listening to it in sequence could be a cure for insomnia. This is mostly high-energy songs with big pop hooks and shiny surfaces, designed to keep your interest while Around the Sun‘s parade of low-energy ballads is designed to deflect your interest. And yet, both these albums feel curiously anemic and flat, like nobody in either band was pushing each other nearly enough. Sure, this album is a big departure in sound from every other Sleater-Kinney record, but the sound they went with instead is pretty much just karaoke-night Masseduction. Carrie’s motto for this album has been “uncomfortable times make for uncomfortable music”, but what’s particularly uncomfortable about these glossy surfaces that you’ve heard done better by many other artists, including the person producing the album? I was listening to some Age of Adz tracks while writing this, and if I don’t need this album to go that far out there, a few songs that lean heavier on abstraction might conceivably make the listener more uncomfortable. There are even songs on the album crying out to be done in a different style; “Bad Dance” is a weird, janky number in this album version, all guitars fuzzed into oblivion and overpowering synths, but the lyrics and melody suggest more a polka number off Rain Dogs than anything on Strange Mercy. Whatever electronic indie-rock Rain Dogs would sound like, I wanna hear that, even if it’s just for a song. It might make me a little uncomfortable.
The music is a drag on this album, but so is how it tackles the Big Issues Of Today with the clanging approach of your mom posting on Facebook. Most of the album she’s just throwing around half-assed political commentary that rarely goes more specific than “shit’s tough now”. When Bono, a man who’s never seen a good political point he couldn’t make insufferable, is making better music about the current political climate than you, a long look in the mirror is necessary. But that doesn’t prepare you for the album’s nadir, “Can I Go On”, which sounds so little like Sleater-Kinney it could be given to Charli XCX without any trouble. But that’s not the problem (Charli XCX makes great pop music); what is the problem is that the lyrics are the worst ever allowed to appear on a Sleater-Kinney record. The first lines hit us with “Everyone I know is tired / But everyone I know is wired / To machines”, the most feeble bit of “what if cell phones but too much” commentary imaginable (also, that’s not how the “tired/wired” tweet format works). You could replace the first verse with Quaaludes-inflicted Leonardo DiCaprio screaming “GET OFF THE PHONE!!!” and the effect would be about the same. Then it’s straight into Carrie shaming people for napping, soon leading to her bemoaning that “Everyone I know is funny / But jokes don’t make us money”, like Fred Armisen is a niche comedy podcaster relying on Patreon money. If Corin is anywhere on this track, her contributions are the faintest whispers of backing vocals, and certainly not guitar, which sounds like an Annie Clark special all the way. It’s a terrifying glimpse into a Carrie Brownstein solo album that I would happily not buy, maybe called Middle-Aged Woman Yells At Cloud. I’d maybe slightly prefer the solo album that houses “LOVE”, a decent electropop number that unfortunately also has Carrie singing “Call the doctor / Dig me out of this mess”.
Not that Corin is innocent of writing bad lyrics this time around. Her lyrics can be endearingly wonky just as often as they’re poignant (All Hands On the Bad One contains her impassioned cry about media exploitation of young women’s pain, but it also opens with her listing different creams and wanting a new cream that gets her high), but here her words trend towards either the unforgivably blunt or the dispiritingly generic. She gets her own “I’m sick of my cell phone” number in “The Future is Here”, which borrows the buzzing synth of “Falls to Climb” without that song’s sense of purpose and replacing its clear-eyed assessment of the world with platitudes about needing you more than ever. What does “the future’s here and we can’t go back” mean in the context of Corin being lonely? I guess the future is that her life is ruled by “tiny screens”, and she can’t go back to there not being tiny screens. The blandness there is counterbalanced by the on-the-noseness of her closing piano ballad “Broken”. It should be a powerful moment of Corin reckoning with the abuse inflicted on her by men, and for the first verse it is that, but the second verse brings in the current moment far too explicitly with detailed descriptions of the Kavanaugh hearings and Corin actually seeing “me toooooo”. As they’ve touted in the press tour, Sleater-Kinney’s been singing about #MeToo for decades now, and they’re certainly not ones to shy away from current events (like the song invoking the sexual assault at Woodstock ’99, or the entire album about Bush), but those songs are written so that they remain fresh decades later, while this carbon-dates itself to Right Now in a way that doesn’t really help the song. If anything, it tries so hard for relevancy it ends up slightly hurting the message that this shit has been going down long before it came into the public eye. If the song’s reference point happened a whopping ten months ago, why should we believe it’s been a problem for much longer than that?
That I can easily do separate paragraphs on Corin and Carrie’s contributions speaks to one of this album’s biggest problems. Every S-K record from Dig Me Out on thrives on the interplay between the two, their guitars weaving around each other and their voices trading off words like they’re a two-headed beast. Something like “One More Hour” makes it wrenching, like overhearing an argument between two soon-to-be-exes (I’ve waited ’til now to share my take that “One More Hour” and Schizopolis are both fantastic dual-perspective break-up stories), but most of the times it’s just exhilarating, keeping you on your toes even during songs you think you have figured out. Here, however, they might as well have recorded their songs in different states for how connected they feel to each other; there are Carrie songs and Corin songs and never the twain shall meet. Even if they did play on each other’s songs, the guitars are so processed and samey-sounding that there’s no way of telling that different people are playing them. There’s no sense of excitement to these people playing together, nothing like the free-for-all jam at the end of “Let’s Call It Love”, it’s just two little islands occasionally drifting in the same direction as each other.
And where’s Janet in all of this? If you told me she went full Bill Berry and spent the entirety of the sessions farming, I’d believe you. After the drum assault in the last minute of the title track, she settles down into some of the most half-hearted, boring drum parts of her career. There’s nothing here that couldn’t be played by a competent session player or even an 808 (and there are a few tracks that seem to leave her out of the equation entirely), certainly nothing on the level of the assault on the senses she provided in The Woods or the galloping beat of “Get Up”. Surely there should be room in an album expressly designed to show that women of a certain age can still rock for a new rock legend still playing drums like she’s beating you over the head. And not to bring up The National again, but listen to I Am Easy To Find and hear how Mike Mills incorporates drum machines and still elevates Bryan Devendorf’s frantic drumming to the forefront of so many songs on it. Again, the lesson, kids, is to never let Mike Mills get away, he knows what’s right for your band.
This album was often called by its creators to be a new version of The Hot Rock, their moody 1999 fan favorite. This comparison is revealed by actually listening to the album to be complete horseshit (unless they’re referring to the Peter Yates movie, whose saga of seemingly competent professionals continually bungling a simple job is a good comparison for the pre-album hype cycle of this). Even on the most base level, that album is introverted while this album is screaming in your face. Even the sad songs on this album are too bombastic to be anywhere near the sad songs on Hot Rock (the weeping viola on “The Size Of Our Love” is more affecting than any part of the ballads on this). But then, for one song, the comparison starts to make sense. That song is called “Restless”, built around a gorgeous, unfiltered guitar part, some gradual synth-strings, and simple lyrics about Carrie letting down a lover. It’s a pretty great song with a particularly beautiful guitar solo, but the best songs on The Hot Rock linger in the air after being heard, and this one fades relatively quickly. It’s a tantalizing sip of water in the middle of a desert, but the glass gets taken away the instant it touches your tongue.