By the time Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold was released, the cat was out of the bag, and the drummer was out of the band (after finishing recording the album). The Yeats reference obviously came to the fore, but according to Janet Weiss, the only thing that fell apart was that “the band is moving in a new direction”. The drummer had held long enough, it seems, and the band certainly moves in a new direction with this one, at least somewhat due to Annie Clark (better known as St. Vincent) and her shiny production. Title, drummer, Yeats, or not, Sleater-Kinney still retains its core attitude and sharp lyricism.
The change in sound comes immediately, with an industrial-influenced beat to the album’s title track. Synths create much of the texture of the album. “Bad Dance” heads directly to the dancefloor. Everything sounds a little squarer, a little steadier than the group’s typical music. You can imagine a line in which the Yeah Yeah Yeahs listened to Sleater-Kinney, went to some clubs, and then Sleater-Kinney, in turn, listened to what came out. The group shifts from its punk and indie rock focus into more of a post-punk sound.
The rigidity makes sense. Singers Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein concern themselves with the body, not just as an idea but as a tangible entity. The music circumscribes the thinking to give it shape, a definite position to hold. “Reach Out” tries to realize through touch that “my body is my own again”, but other tracks grapple with ambivalence about embodiment. On “Hurry on Home”, Brownstein speaks suggestively to a lover, but her come-on gets tied up in an assortment of issues. “Disconnect me from my bones / So I can float, so I can roam / Disconnect me from my skin,” she sings, disinhabiting the body that brings connection. On other tracks, mirrors and digital devices serve as sources of alienation.
The Center Won’t Hold feels bleak at times and ends with brokenness, a song of hurt referencing Christine Blasey Ford and existential questions arise throughout the album. Sleater-Kinney won’t leave it at that, though. On “LOVE”, the band’s ode to its history, Brownstein could be resigned in singing, “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene / Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen,” but she dismisses the whole idea. Old bodies are triumphs. Of course, they are. In “Restless”, we learned that “I’ve learned to love the ugliest things / Like you and me, and me and you.”
The group acknowledge over and over in that first track that “the center won’t hold”. That’s fine. If things fall apart, you still push forward. You take that broken body and praise the ugliness that someone wants to find in it. In isolation, you find the touch that brings form where there was void. You embrace the physical when you’re in it, and you escape it when necessary. “I need you more than I ever have / Because the future’s here, and we can’t go back,” says the chorus to “The Future Is Here”. It doesn’t matter whether that future looks good or bad. Either way, The Center Won’t Hold is a surprising path for taking an honest look at things, holding it together, and moving on.