“You think it’s over now/But we’ve only just begun.”
So goes the priceless, invigorating taunt that Elvis Costello and the Attractions used to commence 1986’s we’re-back-and-ready-to-wreck-shop classic Blood & Chocolate.
That same spirit of exhilarating defiance infuses every last note of Sleater-Kinney’s tough-minded, soul-bearing return from exile, No Cities to Love. A brilliantly forceful, funny, and catchy set of songs, the record seamlessly picks up the thread from 10-year-old would-be career closer The Woods and promptly reimagines all that this great band can be. It’s worth noting that during the long and demoralizing history of rock-and-roll reunions, a fully unqualified success of this magnitude is practically unheard of.
“They broke up 10 years ago and then got back together! And this may be their best record!” Those particular words have been spoken approximately never. Until now.
When news of the band’s reunion—an already-finished new record and subsequent tour—came out of nowhere late last year, the surprise was palpable mostly because there seemed no obvious impetus for it. Having left behind a formidable legacy and near perfect discography, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss had each moved on to careers as solo artists, TV sketch comics, and sought after session players. Even at their most ostensibly noble, band reunions tend to be a phenomenon driven by some combination of magical thinking, hunger for vindication, and financial hardship. None of these factors seemed to apply in this instance. Just the opposite, in fact; the band seems fueled by an absence of desperation—which only makes the achievement of No Cities to Love all the more staggering. Unequivocally, we need Sleater-Kinney more than they need us.
My previous invocation of Costello, and by extension the great British music class of 1977, is no coincidence. With notable exceptions, the years following Sleater-Kinney’s absence have been complacent ones for indie music, heavy on apolitical leisure-class entertainment so bland and inoffensive that there was little more to do than shop to it. When Sleater-Kinney storms through the No Cities opener, “Price Tag,” it feels like a badly needed reality check: “We never knew the cost.” The ghosts of Gang of Four and (the admittedly not dead) Graham Parker tumble through tracks like “A New Wave” and “No Anthems.” The deliriously catchy and unhinged “Hey Darling” could have fallen off the grooves of the Mekons’ Fear and Whiskey. It’s worth remembering that the first wave of English punk emerged at the tail end of a feckless Labor Party regime presaging the onset of Margaret Thatcher’s cheerfully brutalist tenure. Our society seems halfway to a similar state of affairs. No Cities to Love is a hard tap on the shoulder, lest we sleep through one too many vampire weekends.
Upon their emergence in the mid-’90s, mysteriously and utterly fully formed, the most striking thing about Sleater-Kinney was the fluidity of their instrumental interplay—the way Tucker and Brownstein’s guitars and Weiss’s peerless drumming meshed into an idiosyncratic, thrillingly original sound. This was not unusual because they were women—it was unusual because it almost never happens. This was NRBQ, the Band, James Brown’s the J.B.’s—perfect constituent parts who in combination could make sounds no one else could re-create. For good or ill, their evident chops did not stop the band from being perceived almost entirely through the prism of gender. The old-guard critics—Christgau, Marcus, et al.—went justifiably batshit over Dig Me Out, but through no real fault of their own, their breathless haste to locate Sleater-Kinney in the context of a decades long personal narrative of counterculture rock bore a vague tinge of condescension. Other media outlets were exhausting in different ways—a cringe-inducing preoccupation with the members’ personal intimacies, a tendency to dwell on the group’s ostensibly revolutionary politics while failing to grasp their humor and nuance, their balance of pastiche and polemic.
While emphasizing Sleater-Kinney’s role as avatars of feminist inspiration risks minimizing their overall importance, it’s also undeniably my experience of the band and a common one for women of my generation. As I reflect back on my startled first impressions of Sleater-Kinney from my early 20s, I think what was most unusual and exhilarating to me was the consummate sense of self-possession I perceived in these three equal teammates. Each was hugely proficient, but none was the star. They were beautiful, but they didn’t seem overly vain about it. They burned furiously, but they were also funny. It is in retrospect not at all strange that Carrie Brownstein went on to become a comedy star, as she and the band recall nothing so much as the withering, ravishing Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. That is the type of feminism and femininity I saw in Sleater-Kinney, and nothing I had witnessed up to that point felt so much like me, or at least what I aspired to be.
As the band evolved and I wobbled through the exertions and misadventures of early adulthood, I kept coming back to Sleater-Kinney and they kept charting an inspiring and challenging course. I recall feeling initially befuddled and ill at ease at the dark emotional corridors of The Hot Rock, but in time it became my favorite of their records, the one I think of as the band’s Sticky Fingers. One Beat was released on what was literally the worst day of my life (to date, that is; I, like Graham Parker, am admittedly not dead), which struck me as obviously deliberate and unfathomably kind. Three years later, listening to The Woods, I was at a much better place, and I thought: Well, we did it. We’re out of the woods.
But are we? Until I heard No Cities to Love, I don’t think I realized how much I’d missed Sleater-Kinney. Somewhat more jarringly, I don’t think I realized how little self-examination music was inspiring in me in their absence. This is the kind of friend we have in Sleater-Kinney, the sort who takes your measure in a way that makes you laugh, makes you think, and ultimately makes you feel certain that things will get better. For nearly two decades, I have found the band’s timing uncanny, in ways personal, political, and cultural. No Cities to Love is no different. I thought it was over, but it may have only just begun. I needed this. We needed this.
Sleater-Kinney. How do they always know?