The Seamless Evolution of Sleater-Kinney

On the band’s 2019 “The Center Won’t Hold,” Sleater-Kinney shows no intention of looking back, but they refuse to leave the past without first honoring what’s been left behind.

Image: By Raph_PH via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

It’s a different world now for Sleater-Kinney than it was when the trio began recording in Corin Tucker’s Portland basement in 1996. Utterly restless and brazenly unpolished, the band played musty punk-rock clubs and record stores, frequenting the same venues as other iconic riot grrl acts like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. The band would take their deliberately dissonant sound and transform it into what we now love about Sleater-Kinney — Corin Tucker’s characteristic wail, Carrie Brownstein’s screams and riotous guitar riffs that make every record unfurl into delightful chaos, Janet Weiss’ relentlessly powerful drumming.

Now, with their forthcoming record, The Center Won’t Hold, the women of Sleater-Kinney are back to reaffirm their place as the queens of cool. In the lead-up to their ninth studio album release, which is set to take place on August 16, 2019, the band has already released two new singles: “Hurry On Home” and “The Future Is Here.” Both songs give listeners a glimpse into Sleater-Kinney’s own personal reckoning with our changing digital culture in an age characterized by private become public, connection become detachment.

This reckoning seems especially potent for a band formed before humanity’s relationship with technology spiraled so deeply into obsession. Bearing a sharp recollection of the past, the band illuminates all of the personal change and loss that come with technological evolution, all the while undergoing their own evolution as they come to terms with what is lost.

With their first single, the desperate “Hurry On Home,” Sleater-Kinney explores how we occupy the contrasting spaces of physical and digital, personal and public, past and present. The band creates a plane where opposing spaces intertwine, physical and digital crashing together until the song’s narrator is totally disembodied, as Brownstein sings in the chorus, “Disconnect me from my bones/ So I can float/ So I can roam/ Disconnect me from my skin/ Erase the marks/ Begin again.”

Combining anxious vocals with an airy, 80s-inspired guitar riff, the chorus highlights the narrator’s crushing desire for weightlessness, a desire to become liberated from her own body and from her past. In this, Sleater-Kinney uncovers the personal meaning behind technology’s magnetism, as it offers individuals a space to create an identity that is endlessly malleable, and detached from one’s true physical self. Technology offers us a reimagination of the self, the band suggests, demonstrating how our relationship with the digital has transformed into something that is deeply personal.

“Hurry On Home” also toys with personal and public spheres of interaction as the band tries to make sense of its evolving relationship with a growing audience. The song’s second verse, for instance, inhabits both the personal and the public simultaneously, as the narrator describes herself as “Unlovable/ Unlistenable/ Unwatchable.” Brownstein uses language that could have easily been extracted from a Twitter feed, where deeply personal insults are cast into a public space, and relationships between artist and audience are characterized by a broken sense of boundaries.

This is where listeners see the raw material of Sleater-Kinney’s own transformation, as the band faces its own identity as veteran musicians in the era of digital music. The band finds itself entrenched in a new kind of chaos, but, perhaps to the dismay of some of their long-time fans, Sleater-Kinney dives straight into that new chaos without looking back, favoring electronic synths and major chords over the growling guitars and discordant melodies for which they are known. They fearlessly take on all of the changes in music and society at large, allowing themselves to absorb those changes without ever losing the essence of who they are as a band.

Sleater-Kinney takes note, however, that these changes come at a cost. The second single off The Center Won’t Hold, the brooding “The Future Is Here,” is more concerned with mourning the loss of the past, anchored in a sense of both grief and urgency. At the track’s center are themes of brokenness and fragmentation, brought to life by the song’s lyric video as well as the album’s cover art — blurred scraps of faces sewn together into a nonsense image.

Tucker evokes this nonsense image when she sings, “I start my day on a tiny screen/ Try to connect the words, they’re right in front of me,” in a bleak nod to absurdism. She delivers these opening lines in uncharacteristically deadpan contralto, calling to mind our culture’s desensitization to tragedy, especially to the tragedy of losing ourselves. Much like “Hurry On Home,” “The Future Is Here” underlines how technology has infiltrated our most sacred spaces — our public life, our personal relationships, our identity. However, where the former of the two tracks is a frenetic burst, the latter is an elegy not just for the past but for who we once were.

In this way, “The Future Is Here” is the much more apocalyptic of the two singles, evoking the listener’s dystopian imagination with industrial, Orwellian images — like when Tucker sings, “I walk to work out on the city streets/ No one speaks to me, their stony faces beat.” Under layers of melancholic synth, Tucker paints a scene of isolation so vivid that the listener imagines her singing from a distant vacuum, slipping farther and farther away from reality. By the song’s end, listeners have no choice but to descend into that vacuum with her, as she makes the simple yet heartbreaking plea: “I need you more than I ever have/ Because the future’s here, and we can’t go back.”

If Sleater-Kinney has a definitive objective with this record, this line makes it woefully clear. They want their listeners to acknowledge that something vital and human has been lost in the fray of technology. They call us to still need each other in a world where so many things can be done without any real human contact, without any real vulnerability or authenticity. Sleater-Kinney shows no intention of looking back, but they refuse to leave the past without first honoring what’s been left behind.

In the two singles off The Center Won’t Hold, Sleater-Kinney occupies the present moment with honesty and clarity. Though a decided departure from the band’s typical guitar-heavy punk rock, The Center Won’t Hold is as true to Sleater-Kinney as any other record they’ve made. Attentive and self-affirmed, Sleater-Kinney takes all of their musical and lyrical intensity with them into a new age filled with change and loss, both personal and political. They show a deep sensibility for this kind of change, recalling a vivid past that makes the loss even more poignant, affirming the urgency of our time with a searing reminder that what is lost can never be regained.