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Album review: ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ grapples with the insular and external dissonance of existence

Sleater-Kinney (S-K) dropped back into the music world this past August after being on an “indefinite hiatus,” but I hadn’t had the chance to listen to their new album produced with fellow indie rock musician St. Vincent, “The Center Won’t Hold,” until just now.  

The album opens with the title track “The Center Won’t Hold,” a dissonant electronic rock track and throws you right into what sounds like the Sleater-Kinney album-making factory. Midway, it all stops and Carrie whispers the words, “The center won’t hold,” over and over again, and then the driving instrumentation that accompanies the quintessential S-K songs that solidified their place in the world of music.  

In tracks such as “Hurry on Home” and “Reach Out,” there is a strong theme of the body—with lyrics such as, “Disconnect me from my bones / So I can float, so I can roam / Disconnect me from my skin / Erase the marks begin again.” This theme of fear and entrapment is present throughout the entire album.  

Notably, S-K writes about the inevitable impacts of the modern world – as they have now truly become “modern girl[’s]” – matching their timeless angst with current issues. In the songs “Can I Go On,” S-K begs to indecisively ask if it’s even worth it to live, stating, “Maybe I’m not sure I wanna go on at all.” This dark theme, juxtaposed with a dance-worthy chorus, shows that their emotions toward this new technology is ambiguous.  

The song “The Future is Here” starts with, “I start my day on a tiny screen,” and later continues with, “I end my day on a tiny screen,” exclaiming that society’s obsession with screens is something that has become an inevitable reality, and even the members of S-K have fallen victim. However, there is an awareness of the song, as she sings about feeling lost and alone and possessing a strong desire for true, genuine human connection: “I need you more than I ever have, ‘cause the future is here and we can’t go back.” Discussing cellphones and modern technology in music is difficult for some reason, and other artist’s attempts have often fallen short. However, S-K does a good job articulating these issues without drawing cringe. This song clearly shows the production style that is very St. Vincent, with disjointed melodies and instrumentation. 

“Restless” – a short track – has a rock-folk feeling to it, a brief diversion into the mellow side that continues to explore the restless, dissatisfaction with life.  

“RUINS” and “LOVE” are both middle tracks that are intentionally capitalized—therefore I found myself trying to find similarities. But RUINS is a buzzing, haunting song full of eerie harmonic repetition and diction such as “demon,” “creature” and “beast.” Even when the intensity drops, it is replaced with chilling, synth-laden, ghostly vocalization that almost sounds operatic. While “LOVE,” on the other hand, is a choppy, positive story-telling anthem about aging, growth and self-worth that even references “dig me out.”  

Maybe it’s just Carrie’s voice, but “The Dog/The Body” feels like the closest draw back to the original S-K sound. Initially beginning with just vocals and singular guitar notes, once the drums come in it immediately delves right into the hook. The song ends in a similar way it began, however the raw silence that accompanied the beginning is filled with a cinematic soundscape that feels like an ending.  

That’s what makes the last song all the more powerful. 

Like an emotional ballad break in a theater performance—the last track on the record is a revealing song that delves into the feeling of breaking apart. As I first listened, I was struck with the subtle but clear relations to the widely known Me Too movement, which gave voice to sexual assault victims and held powerful, corrupt perpetrators accountable. The lyrics, “She, she, she stood up for us / When she testified / Me, me too / My body cried out when she spoke those lines,” caused me to draw a visceral parallel immediately, exposing the vulnerable emotions behind S-K.  

“The Center Won’t Hold” is a well-balanced exploration into new, experimental directions as well as an homage to Sleater-Kinney’s defining sound.  

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