Sleater-Kinney Grasps at a New Sound on ‘The Center Won’t Hold’

The idea sounded promising. Sleater-Kinney, the three-woman band that arose from the riot grrrl movement to make smart, knotty, engaged, passionately ambitious indie rock, was getting produced by Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, a songwriter with startling ideas and constantly shifting guises. The result is “The Center Won’t Hold,” an album that all but jettisons Sleater-Kinney’s longtime musical identity.

It’s an unexpected expansion of Sleater-Kinney’s musical vocabulary and a bold swerve in the direction of pop. Unfortunately, most of the time it’s a wrong turn. On July 1, Janet Weiss — Sleater-Kinney’s catalytic drummer since 1996 — announced that she was leaving the band as it is “heading in a new direction.”

From its formation in 1994, Sleater-Kinney’s music has been defined by the gnarled interplay of Carrie Brownstein’s and Corin Tucker’s guitars: sometimes meshed, sometimes overlapping, sometimes at cross-purposes, sometimes intricate, sometimes noisy. But on the new album, the guitars are constrained, ceding space to keyboards and electronic beats; often, they’re content to repeat neatly deployed hooks. Instead of tense, fluctuating human friction, there’s layered pop architecture.

It’s similar to the way St. Vincent used synthetic sounds and immediately legible pop structures on her 2017 album “Masseduction.” But “The Center Won’t Hold” isn’t a matter of the producer commandeering the band. According to the album credits, the songs were entirely written and performed by Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss. They share some of St. Vincent’s sonic choices, but they forged them on their own.

The break between Sleater-Kinney’s past and present gets detailed in the album’s title track and opener. “The Center Won’t Hold” starts with distorted synthesizer bass tones and clanking sampled percussion that continue through the verses, as Brownstein sings, with desperate drama in her voice, about opposites and paradoxes — “I need a new reflection/Don’t want to see my face” — and voices answer, quietly chanting, “The center won’t hold.” Suddenly, less than a minute from the end, the old, punky Sleater-Kinney reappears, with grunge guitar chords, pummeling drums and Tucker unleashing her full melodic scream. It’s as if the band is showing what might have been.

Another song, “Love,” retells Sleater-Kinney’s own story, cutely working in some early album titles and celebrating the formative Tucker-Brownstein bond: “Tuned it down to C, turned the amps to 10/A basement of our own, a mission to begin.” But except for the vocals, the track hardly sounds like Sleater-Kinney. It’s perky, metronomic electropop instead.

There’s nothing wrong with change, of course. The test for every long-running band is how to keep shaking up its own routines. But Sleater-Kinney hadn’t been stagnating at all. The band regrouped after a decade-long separation — during which Brownstein revealed her comic side making “Portlandia” and all three women played in other bands — for the 2015 album “No Cities to Love,” resuming its guitar wrangle but also exploring the possibilities of layering. That album sounded both brash and considered, celebrating a reunion and a renewed sense of purpose.

The mood is very different on “The Center Won’t Hold.” From the beginning, Sleater-Kinney’s songs have chronicled both the deeply personal and the broadly political, and the 2016 election took place between albums. What comes through the new songs, even as the production tries to make things ironclad, is a sense of insecurity and futility. “Maybe I’m not sure I want to go on at all,” Brownstein sings in “Can I Go On,” a foursquare, midtempo new wave song that she delivers with a Cyndi Lauper yelp in her voice.

Sleater-Kinney confronts the dispiriting Trump era in “Ruins,” a bleak, hollow march that juxtaposes a staticky sustained synthesizer with elegiac distorted guitar lines, sampled gasps and a chattering electronic pulse: “You’re a creature of sorrow/You’re the beast we made/You scratch at our sadness/Till we’re broken and frayed.” There’s a call for solidarity in “Reach Out,” another march: “The darkness is winning again,” Tucker sings, amid blipping synthesizers that hint at Tame Impala. “Reach out — I can’t fight without you my friend.”

I have been trying to listen to “The Center Won’t Hold” as if Sleater-Kinney were a new band, just another context-free act in the streaming wilderness, and there is a stolid pop craftsmanship in the new songs. “Hurry on Home,” the album’s first single, stomps and twangs efficiently, harking back to Joan Jett and the B-52s while flaunting an artificial chorale singing “ahhh,” determined to grab the ear. “The Future Is Here,” a dirge set to wobbly synthesizer chords, bemoans the isolation of days that begin and end “on a tiny screen,” declaring, “Never have I felt so goddamn lost and alone” and bringing pop nonsense syllables — “na na na na na” — to its chorus.

Yet I can’t hear this album that naïvely. Tucker’s voice is too distinctive, a reminder of how raw and galvanizing Sleater-Kinney has been, and how so many of its songs have felt like they were clawing their way into existence on the spot. Too many of the new songs sound diligent and derivative, as if Sleater-Kinney were working through a pop apprenticeship. It’s good to know that the group doesn’t want to repeat itself, that the band is also out to master 21st-century digital tools. But on “The Center Won’t Hold,” Sleater-Kinney hasn’t found its version 2.0.

“The Center Won’t Hold”
(Mom + Pop)

Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles

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