I used to write a New Year's post every year but I didn't feel like it this time. Instead want to post about the new Sleater-Kinney album, No Cities to Love.
A few weeks ago I was going through a rough time and I finally broke down and made an appointment with a professional and the moment after I did I saw that Sleater-Kinney had reunited and were releasing a new album. I took this as an auspicious sign. Few bands mean as much to me as Sleater-Kinney does, and I've seen few other bands play as many times as I've had the good fortune to see them live.
Sleater-Kinney is named after the road near Olympia, Washington where they used to practice. It's literally a reference to an un-city. An off-ramp. Olympia's a small town. I guess it is technically a city, it is the state capital. Portland, where the band moved in the 90s, is truly a city. I moved from the suburbs of California to New York City. And look, the title of the album, No Cities to Love rings true for me. it's freaky. There are no new cities to love. There are no undiscovered placed. I moved to New York and it didn't fix everything. Not forever. That's why I had to make Fag City, an imaginary city to love. A place you didn't have to move to. A place you already inhabit.
The new record is modern-sounding but not too terribly hip or trendy. It doesn't really sound like anything other than Sleater-Kinney. It doesn't sound, truly, like Wild Flag or Quasi or The Corin Tucker Band either. The band members have spoken in recent interviews about the particular dynamic the three of them have together, and it's true. It's like they speak a weird twin language. It's not, though, some conspiratorial inside joke, and it's not some radical call for a re-imagining of form or language or politics either. They don't seem to be trying to insulate themselves in their own vernacular, nor do they seem interested in challenging and fighting a wider fight against the "rules" of rock or music culture. They just do whatever is necessary to make their songs sound right. It's a sort of un-glamorous approach to music, or rock and roll. It's not about being sexy or spotlit so much as actually serving the songs.
Maybe this doesn't make sense. I think they've always written really fantastic, complex and surprising songs, and the new songs on No Cities to Love are as good or better than anything they've ever written, and fairly breathtaking. The choruses sometimes come out of nowhere, a guitar part that seems wonky or meandering the first time you hear it is suddenly the centerpiece of the melody moments later, an anchor or spotlight in a whirlwind of sound.
The opening moments of "Price Tag" fill me with such joy. Janet Weiss, thank you for everything. It is a welcome explosion. It's literally fantastic, it's hard to describe without bursting into fantasy. I listened to this song a lot while I was in California last week, jogging along the beach. Feeling amazing.
"Fangless" is kind of a joke, right? Since the song itself is of course anything but fangless. It's toothsome, vicious, alternately anthemic (Carrie's chorus), and yet shockingly funky (Corin's verses).
"Surface Envy" is tense, slightly queasy with excitement, a butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling. Anticipatory, anxious but not nervous. The song plays at being playful. It acts like a freestyle jam, at first, but they're not equivocating. They almost never are. "We win / We lose / Only together to we break the rules."
The title track sounds like a DNA map of the band. They've rarely sounded truer, or more like themselves. "Walk to / or walk off / the edge of my own life" Carrie sings. I had doubted her, I will say. I've never watched Portlandia and I wasn't a huge Wild Flag fan, oddly enough. This song makes me feel like such a fucking idiot. She's amazing. On this song, Carrie Brownstein has never sounded more self-assured, beautiful or more powerful.
"A New Wave" is the reward you get for being a Sleater-Kinney fan. Full stop. It's gorgeous and galvanizing and winsome and sort of smirking, like "Oh, right". It's a kind of reminder, in a way. It feels, really, like a gift to the listener. THANK YOU, LADYMEN.
"No Anthems" is a elemental and rapturous, featuring S-K's signature guitar tangles which can sound chaotic at first but then reveal themselves as dizzyingly complex. Corin's lyrics and singing just this side of cynical. She's authoritative, but she's not wrong. She's right. It's scary.
"Gimme Love" is a kind of blues song. It's funky, lopsided, raw-throated and a stomper. It's gutsy but not guttural.
"Bury Our Friends" is of course the first track released from the album, featuring a video by Miranda July, whose novel The First Bad Man is out next week.
This song is wonderful. Hearing this song, after aching for a Sleater-Kinney reunion for so long is pretty amazing. The song is good news, a clarion call but it has a sad message. The song is about a pretty fucking harsh duty, that thing of living. Living it down, living it out. What a weird image. Exhume your idols. As opposed to Sonic Youth's 1983 Kill Yr Idols, it calls to engage history. Dig me up indeed. And yet, there's the title too. You do have to bury your friends. We all have to do it. There are so few songs about it, though. "We're wild and weary but we won't give in." It's glorious. It's LOUD but it ends quietly.
"Hey Darling" is a kind of rehabilitation of the rock tradition. Remember the so-called rock revival of the early aughts? That could never have happened if it hadn't been for Sleater-Kinney's previous decade of near-constant innovation, and dedication to the form. This song cements their legacy as one of the most important and clear-thinking rock bands in American history. Remember when TIME called them the best band in America? I do. I was in Olympia that week, for Ladyfest, with my mom. I remember we were shopping at a grocery store for food to eat in our hotel that week, and seeing the issue of TIME in the checkout line of the grocery store in Olympia. It was so weird.
"Fade" is the closest thing the record has to a ballad, but it's really more like a rock opera. It's nearly prog rock, it's creative. The ghosts of the 60s which loomed over One Beat or the 70s on The Woods are fondly remembered and laid to rest here. To make room for the future, to make sense of today. It sounds like putting what you know to use. What's that called again? Wisdom.
I was talking with Perfect Li'l Daniel the other day about the new album. One of the reasons we initially bonded was over our shared love of The Hot Rock. He was saying, and he was right as usual, how weird it is. When S-K put an album out, so many years ago, it was after a tour, and it was always a big deal. You saw it coming. It was an event. It defined a chapter of our lives. I never thought I'd be an adult, that I'd be 30 years old and living in New York and then suddenly there would be a new Sleater-Kinney album, surprise, to jolt me out of myself. To wake me up. A new record I didn't even know I needed so badly, and for it to come by surprise it just... overwhelming. They recorded the album without playing the songs on tour fist, which is new for them. Listening to the album, though, the thought I kept having was "I bet these songs are going to sound so amazing live. I can't wait to hear them." I'm looking forward to the show in New York, but the crowd is a little intimidating. I've been to all sorts of wild shows, but nothing ever compares to a Sleater-Kinney audience in terms of ferocity, devotion, and craziness. I'm not kidding. And that was in 1999, in San Francisco.
I wonder about the motivation of the band. Like, what were they thinking about when they wrote these songs? I don't know if it's for me to know, really. This record is upbeat but sad. It's fast and catchy but it's dark, too.
It's so heavy. There are no cities to love. It's true.
There's nowhere to move to. That feeling of having nowhere to go.
Nowhere, that is, except to go inside. Nowhere to go but back together. Nowhere but here.
Nowhere to go but forward.
SLEATER-KINNEY: NO CITIES TO LOVE IS OUT JANUARY 20TH ON SUB-POP