They keep us waiting 10 long years, and this is what we get? This… this… This absolutely golden, skin-electrifying, guts-knotting album-of-the-year contender. I appreciate that absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder, but bloody hell: ‘No Cities To Love’ goes and bursts vital organs from the outset, flat-lining any expectations of a will-this-suffice comeback and representing, quite probably, this band’s best-ever album.
Hands up: I’ve never been a T-shirt-wearing, poster-tacking, badges-bearing fan of Sleater-Kinney. I own records, I’ve danced to songs, I appreciated their pre-split existence – and I felt their absence after the release of 2005’s ‘The Woods’, a generally solid set followed by its makers dissolution in the summer of 2006. I liked them enough to notice the hole they left in their wake, but not so much that I was desperately yearning for a return.
But ‘No Cities To Love’ makes me feel like an idiot. It immediately stakes its claim as the rock album of 2015, in such style that I can’t believe that even the most hardcore of SK acolytes could have anticipated such fire, such bite, and such power.
Make no mistake: these musicians might be 40 and up nowadays – drummer Janet Weiss is closing in on a half-century – but the brute strength of this unit across album number eight is truly formidable. It’s common enough to expect returns after so long away to be tentative, a soft touch in comparison to the fiery rhetoric and acid-licked riffs of old, but Sleater-Kinney’s is orchestrated from a pit of brimstone.
Remember when that first Grinderman LP shook preconceptions that those old dudes couldn’t still cut it with the snotty punk kids? ‘No Cities To Love’ is heavier, harder and hotter than that record. Crank it up and you can feel it slowly toasting your auricular tissue.
One key factor in the end product’s fearsome quality might be the presence of producer John Goodmanson. As the band’s chosen collaborator on 1997’s Kill Rock Stars breakthrough ‘Dig Me Out’ LP, and also 2000’s ‘All Hands On The Bad One’ and 2002’s ‘One Beat’, he knows how to amplify this band’s searing strengths. And doesn’t he just: ‘No Cities To Love’ is perfectly pitched between confrontation and comfort.
‘Price Tag’ opens proceedings with punch and poise, tremendous percussive propulsion and attention-piquing lyricism that attacks our contentment to stick to the systems that, ultimately, keep us trapped in routine. “It’s 9am, we must clock in…” – but, nah, forget that. It’s time for a change. ‘Fangless’ seems to address comparable concerns: “Sharp teeth, in a broken jaw,” so what are you expected to do with such weaponry when its delivery’s inherently flawed? The delivery is pointed, always – this isn’t mere observation, but a call to arms, for getting up and turning the situation around.
And so it goes. The splendidly buoyant title track bemoans the blinkered pursuit of power, of hollow importance, which can only ultimately result in feelings of emptiness instead of fulfilment from tighter relationships. ‘A New Wave’ calls for togetherness in breaking the status quo, singing of hungers unsated, and how the smallest ripples of discontentment can build to waves of radicalism. It’s one of many songs here that finds that so-sweet spot between heaviness and melodicism: Sleater-Kinney always had volume, but here they’ve mass too, more than ever.
These songs have movement, as they long have, but stopping them will take more than even the most impressively immoveable object. ‘No Anthems’ slinks with a wicked grind in its low end, countering vocals that shoot from a whisper to a clouds-splitting scream, and ‘Bury Our Friends’ might well address the importance of its makers’ return: “My body has no need for sleep, this time around…”
A change is as good as a rest, so some complete idiot once said. But there’s some truth to apply here, as Sleater-Kinney have had both: time away to recharge, to explore other projects, and to change from a band that mattered to some to one that now needs, deserves, to matter to many. The simple fact is that ‘No Cities To Love’ sounds hungrier, fiercer and more up for the fight than next to anything coming from newer, younger rock artists right now.
2014 was a shitty year for mainstream rock and pop (just look at those BRIT nominations), and this album has emerged like an antidote to that sickness. Slip just a single dose into your bloodstream and you’ll forget that Royal Blood ever represented great white hopes for a supposedly on-its-arse genre. It blows its competitors out of the water, over the horizon and maroons them where they belong: absolute irrelevance.
Words: Mike Diver
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Related: Sleater-Kinney: The Complete Guide