Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won’t Hold review: Anxious, pent-up and personal

Given the precarious title and fragmented artwork of The Center Won’t Hold, it should have been obvious from the start that this was a band about to disintegrate. Then again, even Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker didn’t know that their Sleater-Kinney bandmate, drummer Janet Weiss, was going to up sticks as soon as the album was finished. “We thought everyone was really happy about the record,” said a forlorn Brownstein in a recent interview.

As well they should be. Though it marks the ambiguous end of Weiss’s time in Sleater-Kinney, and heralds an uncertain future for the remaining two members, the band’s ninth record is among their best. Having arrived 25 years ago in the last gasps of riot grrrl, and returned after a nine-year hiatus in 2015, Sleater-Kinney are as potent now as they ever were – their music spiky and confrontational, melding the personal and political to striking effect.

But there’s an increased anxiety, both corporeal and emotional, running through The Center Won’t Hold, a pent-up desire to break free from something – though they never seem quite sure what. “Disconnect me from my bones, so I can float, so I can roam,” sings Brownstein – her singular voice all yelps and creaks – on “Hurry On Home”. On “Reach Out”, Tucker begs, her voice a little sleeker than Brownstein’s but no less commanding, “Reach out and see me, I’m losing my head.” Quietly discordant piano ballad “Broken” pays tribute to Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused supreme court judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault: “Me, me too, my body cried out when she spoke those lines.”

The album’s angst is wrapped up in surprisingly poppy production. For this, they recruited St Vincent, who in her own music combines jagged electric guitars with crooked, pulsing synths, and has clearly encouraged Sleater-Kinney to do the same. “Love”, with its triumphant tenor and wobbly Eighties instrumentals, could soundtrack a John Hughes movie, were it not for Brownstein suddenly and pointedly yelling, “F***”.

The Center Won’t Hold is a reference, it seems, to the 1920 WB Yeats poem “Second Coming”: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” If this is Sleater-Kinney falling apart, then what a beautiful collapse it is.