Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities to Love” (Sub Pop; 2015)

“Perhaps it was inevitable that Sleater-Kinney would reunite. They parted ways in 2006 claiming that it was a hiatus, not a dissolution, thereby leaving the door open for a comeback — a comeback that arrived nearly ten years after the group faded away. Smartly, Sleater-Kinney don’t pick up the threads left hanging by the knotty, roiling The Woods. They acknowledge the decade they spent apart, a decade where all three members pursued very different paths: Corin Tucker turned toward domesticity then founded her own punk-blues band, drummer Janet Weiss played with Stephen Malkmus before re-teaming with Carrie Brownstein in Wild Flag, an indie supergroup that provided Brownstein a breather from her newfound fame as a television star. In short, all three spent ten years living their lives and those lives can be felt throughout No Cities to Love, a record that neatly balances urgency and maturation. Purposefully short — the album weighs in at barely over a half-hour — and conspicuously bereft of slow songs (the slow churn of the closing “Fade” is the only contender), No Cities to Love feels breathless but it also finds room to breathe. Previously when Sleater-Kinney stretched out musically, they were assisted by an outside producer — they hired Roger Moutenot for The Hot Rock, Dave Fridmann for The Woods — but here, they reunite with producer John Goodmanson, who helmed every other one of the trio’s records, and that familiarity is a key to the success to No Cities to Love. Sleater-Kinney worked on these ten songs over the course of two years, deliberately ditching songs that recalled the past (“Hey Darling” comes closest to evoking the old rush), a move that often results in complex syncopated rhythms (more than the group flirt with a disco-rock pulse) and rich, multi-layered melodic hooks in the guitars and vocals. It’s a bright, openhearted call to arms, an antidote to The Woods, and a furious and cloistered record that found the band retreating whenever they decided to look on the outside world. Which isn’t to say Tucker and Brownstein are happy with the state of affairs in 2015: No Cities to Love attacks contemporary politics as directly as One Beat did in 2002, teaming with anger, anxiety, and unresolved questions. Despite this internal tension, the first and lasting impression of No Cities to Love is one of joy, a joy that emanates from a group who realized the purpose and pleasure of being in a band during their extended absence.” – Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine, AMG ALL MUSIC GUIDE (RATING: 4,5 stars out of 5)

* * * * *

Now is the time: breaking the decade of relative silence that followed Sleater-Kinney‘s prodigious supposed finale, 2005’s The Woods, the girls are back in town. We have arrived at the critical reappraisal and celebrated comeback of music’s most revered feminist saviors of American rock’n’roll. It is 2015 and we are staring down Sleater-Kinney’s wise eighth album—exactly 50 years removed from the birth of “R-e-s-p-e-c-t”, exactly 40 years removed from the birth of Horses, exactly 30 years removed from when Kim Gordon first yells “brave men run away from me” in the Mojave desert, exactly 20 years removed from Sleater-Kinney, a primal, insurrectionist warning shot from the margins. Ever since, we have had Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss to soundtrack our societal chaos and progressing zeitgeist: tangled agitation, pummeled norms, principled wit, sublimity, sadness, friction, kicks.

Nowadays, there is a prevailing notion that we ought not want such epochal bands as Sleater-Kinney to reunite, because why tarnish the legend of “Best Band in the World” acclaim and a perfectly ascendant seven-album streak? But if any band in the past two decades has proved they’ve got the intellect, skepticism, and emotional capacity to deserve this—to keep living—it’s Sleater-Kinney. No Cities to Love is a disarming, liberationist force befitting the Sleater-Kinney canon. Fervent political leftism has been implicit to this Olympia-born trio since they first inverted Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” on a 1994 comp and that goes on here as well; we desperately need it. It is astonishing that a radical DIY punk band could grow up and keep going with this much dignity and this many impossibly chiseled choruses. No Pistol, Ramone, or unfortunate mutation of Black Flag could have done this.

The necessity of change—the creative virtue of ripping it up and starting again—remains a crucial strand of Sleater-Kinney’s DNA. This is still them: low-tuned classic rock tropes resuscitated with punk urgency, raw and jagged like Wire compressing crystalline Marquee Moon coils. Weiss’ massive swoop is still the band’s throbbing heart, pumping Sleater-Kinney’s blood. But Brownstein has said they set out to find “a new approach to the band” and that is true of No Cities to Love. It is no less emphatic and corporeal than punk classics Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out. But unlike their last two albums of monstrous combat rock, No Cities to Love keeps only the most addictive elements—if Sleater-Kinney are still taking Joey Ramone as a spiritual guide, this is their mature, honed, and clean-sounding Rocket to Russia. Catchy as all-clashing hell, it’s Sleater-Kinney’s most front-to-back accessible album, amping their omnipresent love of new wave pop with aerodynamic choruses that reel and reel, enormously shouted and gasped and sung with a dead-cool drawl. The album has the particular aliveness of music being created and torn from a group at this very moment—tempered, but with the wild-paced abandon that comes with being caged and then free.

As ever, empathy is Sleater-Kinney’s renewable energy source. They have always made a kind of folk music—songs of real people—and opener “Price Tag” is an honest example of this, fueled by Tucker’s motherly responsibility. In concrete detail, it describes the struggle of a working class family in the context of American capitalism and financial crisis (it rings of the high cost of low prices). Real life power dynamics permeate No Cities, among the rubbery synth lines of the otherwise venomous “Fangless” (which I know will frighten off a couple to-the-bone punk purists, like garlic wards off evil) and the anxious post-hardcore lurch of “No Anthems”, which Albini could have produced. On the glammy “Gimme Love”, Tucker plainly wants more of that four-letter-word for girls and outsiders (she seems to wish, in the words of de Beauvoir, “that every human life might be pure transparent freedom”). Brownstein, meanwhile, sings some of the most elliptical and oblique lyrics of her career: “I was lured by the devil… I’ll choose sin ’til I leave,” she hollers like a Bad Seed, clenched and possessed. In lighter moments, it’s heartening to hear Tucker and Brownstein in unison at the record’s sing-song center: “No outline will ever hold us/ It’s not a new wave/ It’s just you and me.”

Sleater-Kinney began work on No Cities in earnest around May 2012, they have said, but especially on the anthemic title track and “Hey Darling”—the first two songs they wrote—you can hear echoes of that decade of pause, an airing out of just why. The titular phrase is abstract enough, but considering Brownstein’s vocal incompatibility with the van-show-van-show tour-life void—and her lines, here, about “a ritual of emptiness”—it plays like a direct take on the complicated reality of the rootless rock band and its scattered tribe. On “Hey Darling”, one of Tucker’s gummiest melodies becomes a letter to fans, reasoning her hiding: “It seems to me the only thing/ That comes from fame is mediocrity,” and then, “Sometimes the shout of the room/ Makes me feel so alone.” The slow-burn of “Fade”, the closer, also takes on Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus. Tucker is like a Robert Plant putting her supernatural quasi-operatic range on display over epic, minor-key hard rock, switching from sly-voiced ballad to high-pitched inflection: “If there’s no tomorrow/ You better live,” she sings of a dimming spotlight, her slipping self-perception. It’s the closest No Cities gets to The Woods’ feminist rewrite of ’70s rock grandeur, and yet sounds like nothing on that record. Sleater-Kinney’s discography is full of songs delivering meta-commentaries on what it means to be women playing rock; No Cities is more purely personal and explicitly political, evidence enough that in the context of family, middle-age, and multiple careers, it is possible to have everything.

For the first time in 21 years, Sleater-Kinney have written an album without a proper stomach-twisting tearjerker; no wistful confessions, breathless breakups, or dying lovers, no“Good Things”, “One More Hour”, or “The Size of Our Love”. But I predict Sleater-Kinney will be making more people cry this year than ever before—maybe Lena Dunham, maybe Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves, definitely Fred Armisen (tears are highly subjective, and yet my claim is substantiated). “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote, and we align ourselves with the potent narratives of great bands for the same reason. Their songs guide us through the restless process of figuring out who we are. We search for meaning in rhythm and couplets and distortion, and if a band is grounded with as much purpose as Sleater-Kinney, they charge our consciousness, occupy space in our relationships, symbolize what we want to become. Sleater-Kinney’s music still does this. It tells us—women or anyone who has ever felt small and othered—the truth, that even when the world seems to deny it, we are never powerless. Now the story goes on longer; it didn’t have to end.” – REVIEW BY JENN PELLY, PITCHFORK (RATING: 8.7 out of 10)

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