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Weeks before the release of The Center Won't Hold, Janet Weiss left Sleater-Kinney -- a departure that clouded the record's reception, suggesting that the drummer perhaps wasn't happy with the trio's decision to collaborate with producer St. Vincent on the 2019 LP. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker countered this perception by insisting it was Weiss' idea to work with St. Vincent, and the fact that the drummer is hardly buried in the mix suggests there may be no animosity among the various camps. Still, with Weiss' absence, the very title The Center Won't Hold seems prescient for the future of Sleater-Kinney, but it's also true the album is designed to suggest that the world is unmoored. In the age of Trump and Brexit, such a notion isn't far-fetched, and Brownstein and Tucker frequently allude to the roiling political tensions of the late 2010s, but they spend just as much of the record lamenting personal dissociation -- the alienation that arrives when too much time is spent time staring into tiny screens. To that end, teaming with St. Vincent is a bit of a conceptual masterstroke. Annie Clark encourages Sleater-Kinney to approach their songs from a sideways angle and dress the arrangements in retro synths; they're adding explicit post-punk artiness to their punk roar. Coming on the heels of the galvanizing guitar rock of No Cities to Love, this shift in direction is especially bracing, particularly when combined with the apocalyptic undercurrents of the lyrics. Some of these words may be a bit on the nose, but when heard as part of a web of retro synths, echoey guitars, and tightly controlled rhythms, the effect is powerful: it's an album that forces the listener to abandon nostalgia and accept that things are different now. It's not a comforting notion, and it's one that may sit awkwardly for listeners who prize raw guitars over refined aesthetic, but The Center Won't Hold demonstrates what a fearless band Sleater-Kinney is.
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