The Centre Won’t Hold, the title of Sleater-Kinney’s ninth album, is taken from W.B. Yeats’ 1919 poem The Second Coming, the words of which have been repeatedly invoked in the Trump era: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The cover of the album features the faces of the three band members – founding members Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and long-serving drummer Janet Weiss – split, as though they are dissociated identities, reflecting what Brownstein calls “a sense of brokenness, fractiousness and tumultuousness” in the surrounding political and cultural landscape.
Sadly, the band’s own centre wouldn’t hold in the album’s aftermath: only weeks ahead of the album’s release, Weiss decided she was done. “It’s ironic, or coincidental I suppose, that an album that speaks to the fragility of structures, that our own structure was dismantled in the process,” Brownstein says.
Losing Weiss, whose distinctive, polyrhythmic thump formed the core of the band, is a severe blow. Brownstein admits she is effectively irreplaceable: “You don’t replace her. I think you find a different drummer that can find their own way into the songs and their own way into the music, and to us, and we enter the middle period of Sleater-Kinney.”
But those words “middle period”, which Brownstein refers to repeatedly, are telling. After a decade-long break between 2005’s The Woods and 2015’s No Cities To Love, Sleater-Kinney are back to stay – good news for fans of one of the most celebrated indie-rock bands of the last quarter century.
Produced by Annie Clark, better known as St Vincent, The Centre Won’t Hold represents a slight change in direction for the band. The band’s longevity and stature, Brownstein says, had given them the freedom to stretch themselves creatively. “We wanted to defy people’s expectations and also surprise ourselves.”
That change resulted in straightforward musical differences that were cited as the reasons for Weiss’ departure. But Brownstein says Sleater-Kinney had the equivalent of a “free pass” with No Cities To Love, with the band coasting on the enthusiasm generated by their reformation. To remain relevant, they needed to reinvent themselves.
That increased the pressure on the band. “I think [No Cities] delivered in all the ways it needed to, but whatever we did next kind of needed to cement the middle period of this band” – those words again – “to actually say, this is not just for the sake of touring or for the sake of nostalgia, but really to re-enter the cultural conversation.”
Sleater-Kinney, which emerged from the riot grrrl movement centred in their hometown of Olympia, Washington, have always been a vital part of that conversation. “I think it’s hard to make music or any art right now that isn’t a reflection of the time we live in,” Brownstein says.
The Centre Won’t Hold is the deeply personal reaction of a deeply political band to Trump’s America. Brownstein says “we wanted there to be a real personal core to it, to feel like the songs were not just bombastic but [that] they were exploring an interiority, a feeling about what’s going on right now.”
Yet, she says, there is a lot of melody on the record: The Centre Won’t Hold might deal with interiors, but that doesn’t mean it fails to look out. “I think we wanted to provide a fulcrum for people to feel seen and heard within this broader context of despair and uncertainty, that there was something to stand on, even when the songs are dealing with pain.”
Brownstein says this was deliberate, and true to the band’s anthemic spirit. While the songs might deal with the daily struggle just to get up in the morning, “they get to the chorus and they’re joined by other people, and we set this up very purposely, knowing that we didn’t just want to spiral downwards. We wanted to find rungs on the ladder that uplifted.”
And Sleater-Kinney have always been a band to uplift. “We always worked so hard to make the music the message,” Brownstein says. “We don’t shy away from politics or earnestness or integrity, but the music is always the thing that lasts, you have to have good songs, that’s what people will remember.
“I always think that it’s up to other people to assess the legacy of this band. From inside of it, my goal is to keep it alive and relevant and scrappy and kind of hungry, and you know, Janet or no Janet, there’s been plenty of other detours. It’s been a really wonderful and exhilarating journey.”
First published in The Age (Shortlist), 15 August 2019