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Album Review: Sleater-Kinney’s ‘The Center Won’t Hold’

Losing a band member isn’t always the end of the world, but in the case of Sleater-Kinney, the departing artist was drummer Janet Weiss.

On July 1, she posted a brief message to Twitter, stating that Sleater-Kinney was “heading in a new direction” and that it was time for her to move on. The announcement came as a major shock, for multiple reasons. First off, Sleater-Kinney would now be without one of the most dynamic, distinctive drummers in all of rock.

In addition, it was hard to see the timing of Weiss’ decision as an enthusiastic endorsement for the band’s ninth and latest album, “The Center Won’t Hold.”

Overall, it finds singer/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker tapping into the anxiety and dread that hovers over, well, seemingly everything these days. Lyrically, the writing is urgent and sincere. When Tucker warns that “the darkness is winning again” on “Reach Out,” you believe her. On “Love” — which serves as a love letter to the band but eschews nostalgia — Brownstein mockingly sums up the state of the world: “There’s nothing more threatening and nothing more obscene/ Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen,” finishing with an emphatic “F—!”

Weiss was a full participant for the recording of “Center,” although her presence does feel diminished at times. Perhaps it’s the result of pop polymath Annie Clark (St. Vincent), who made headlines this spring when it was announced that she would serve as the album’s producer.

Clark’s fingerprints are all over “Center,” from the new wave pep of “Can I Go On” to the (gasp!) drum machine on “LOVE” that kicks off an infectious riff worthy of Devo. Some Sleater-Kinney fans will inevitably treat “Center” like a post-mortem, looking for clues within the notes and lyrics to possibly help them understand why Weiss chose to leave. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t take much detective work to put together a reasonable hypothesis.

For 23 years, the band has been a three-headed force of nature, kept in perfect balance by the interplay of Brownstein and Tucker on guitar and Weiss serving as the outfit’s sonic spine. With Clark coming aboard as a producer, the need for Weiss as an anchoring force on the record was lessened. Clark is downright masterful in her ability to manipulate and modulate a song’s atmosphere. Perhaps that’s why even though Weiss shines across much of the album, her contributions are sometimes overshadowed by sleek synths or refracted echoes and yelps.

The effect isn’t unappealing, but it is striking.

If Weiss’ drumming is one foundational element to Sleater-Kinney’s prodigious discography, then the way Brownstein and Tucker speak to each other through their instruments is another. Whether in unison or in battle, their ongoing dialogue — both in the studio and on the stage — is enthralling specifically because it is always in constant flux. The way they take space (and offer it) and alternatingly cut each other off and build off one another is an essential component of the sound Sleater-Kinney has cultivated throughout their career.

With “Center,” it sometimes feels as though Brownstein and Tucker are suffering from bad reception. Some of the old magic bubbles up toward the end of the opening title track as a sparse, industrial warning explodes into calculated chaos. In fact, that element of calculation — fundamental to Clark in her efforts to fluidly incorporate electronic textures into most of Center’s 11 tracks — unfortunately also occasionally serves as an unintentional muzzle on the freeform nature of the band’s two guitarists.

Still, while the loss of Weiss is unquestionably enormous, what’s the crime in Brownstein and Tucker taking the moment to reshape their roles within the band as well? Sleater-Kinney’s innovative, groundbreaking catalog isn’t going anywhere. How it will feel to see fan favorites like “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” or “One More Hour” performed live without Weiss remains to be seen, but “Center” is a new chapter.

When the band tours this fall, there will be keyboards and synths. There will also be Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and, one can only imagine, a drummer. As long as that remains true, “Center” ushers in the next era for Sleater-Kinney. It won’t be the same, nor should it be.

This album may be a bold departure for the group, but in this moment, who can afford to be meek? Sleater-Kinney never has, and nine albums in, that fact continues to hold.

Popular on Variety

Album Review: Sleater-Kinney’s ‘The Center Won’t Hold’

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