An album full of darkness and isolation, but also defiance…

Every so often art truly imitates life. For Sleater-Kinney this is more applicable than just about any other turn of phrase. The process of creating this album is reflected in its title: writing separately, internal struggles, grappling with a broken inner vision…but then a willingness to use music to build the record back into something embodying the entire band.

Produced by St. Vincent ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ is a work that really knows what to do and where to go. While the sense of darkness, terror and isolation threads through it, the project also represents an equally powerful response to the outside world.

Usually Sleater-Kinney would all have been in the same room during the process of making an album, writing on guitar, but this time they created demos separately on their computers, which had a profound effect on the songs, each one carrying a sense of isolation.

It projects a tamed rawness and therein lies its ambition and identity. The title track is the album’s opener. Fully charged, brimming with intense expression, it defines the setting. What follows is an intelligent, exploratory walk-through of the psycho-social confines of our existence. It doesn’t always feel that comfortable, but it’s not meant to.

‘Reach Out’ is a haunting yet exuberant piece. “When I look down I was a mess. My face was thin, my clothes were wet, my shoes untied, stone in my chest,” signifies that this record is not laidback or passive - it hits and it attacks throughout in persistent ways. There’s a theatrical element expressed vocally on songs like ‘Can I Go On’ that insists on being heard.

Elsewhere, the likes of ‘Restless’ tackle the world’s gravitation towards ugliness, where lyrics paint vivid pictures with lines like: “My heart wants the ugliest things.” Electronic sonics form the basis throughout including the darkness of ‘Ruins’, a track that has an angry vibe and Kate Bush-resembling vocals. Equally, the Kraftwerk-like ‘Love’ has some of the same qualities while the more stripped back ‘The Dog/The Body’ differs in vibe, with lyrics that reflect this change in tone.

Sleater-Kinney’s ninth album does have a nightmare doomsday-like feel to it, but the inarguable quality is there for all to hear - excellent vocals, instrumentation and production make for a catchy record. The band clearly dug much deeper and as a result they created bigger sounds than before. It can be seen as the positive impact of a collaboration that has lasted more than twenty-five years – even though drummer Janet Weiss recently decided to leave the band. Maybe the centre really cannot hold.  

8/10

Words: Susan Hansen

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