Sleater-Kinney’s core audience is hardcore … remember back in 2001, when Greil Marcus called them America’s best rock band in Time Magazine? Marcus is part of the small but important subgroup of S-K fans, a subgroup of which I am a member: middle-aged straight men who were raised on rock and roll. The majority of Sleater-Kinney fans from the start have been girls and women, again with a subgroup, this time of gay women. More and more men turned up at the concerts I saw over the years, for whatever reason … S-K had “crossover” appeal in that respect. But, as much as I love them, I don’t think of them as “mine” the way I imagine the female fans who have grown with the band might feel. Suffice to say that all of the fans I have mentioned tend to be obsessively in love with Sleater-Kinney.
I’ve long proposed a Theory of Rock Star Career Trajectories, which claims that by their mid-30s at the latest, most rock and rollers have already peaked. The greatest of them are still capable of the occasional masterpiece, but the general pattern, even for the best, resembles that of The Rolling Stones, who cranked out one classic album after another through Exile on Main St., which came when Mick and Keith were pushing 30, after which we got Goats Head Soup. Sleater-Kinney came up with the perfect answer to this problem, although I’m sure they didn’t think of it this way, or even that it was a long term, pre-planned goal. Sleater-Kinney made seven albums, and every one of them was at the least really, really good, with a couple of classics thrown in. (One example of this: Robert Christgau gave the following grades to those seven albums: A-, A, A, A, A-, A, A.) They were the band that could do no wrong. In 2006, they were 34, 32, and 41 years old, prime candidates for my theories of career trajectories.
And then they went on what they called a “hiatus”.
In the ensuing years, Corin recorded and toured behind two albums, while Carrie and Janet joined Wild Flag for an album and a tour. And Carrie, of course, became famous far beyond the S-K core audience for the TV series Portlandia. Years passed, and the hiatus continued, suggesting a future for the band that felt increasingly unlikely.
I re-read the things I’ve written about Sleater-Kinney when thinking about this post, and realized there was no point in recapping what I’ve already said about how they are important to me. Briefly, they are the closest anyone has ever come in my heart to Bruce Springsteen, who will always be #1. I saw S-K twelve times over the years, played their records over and over, felt the kind of attachment a fan gets when they think of the band members not as Jagger/Richards but as Corin and Carrie and Janet. Even my wife, not a fan, knows who those three names are. When they went on hiatus, I was 53 years old. I knew how much energy it took to be a hardcore fan … three dozen Bruce concerts taught me that point. And I somehow knew there would never be another obsession in my life like what Sleater-Kinney offered. I didn’t have it in me to start all over again. I still had Bruce, and I’ve gone to a lot of Pink concerts over the years (and I love her, but not the same way). But it was time for me to accept my age … I didn’t need to wallow in the music of my youth, there was still plenty of new music to be enjoyed, but the days of seeing a band two nights in a row and thinking about them once or twice a day, those days were gone.
Of course, we all held out hope that “hiatus” meant what it was supposed to mean, that the band would get back together, even though they’d gone out on such a high that any reboot seemed a bit pointless. And as time went on, the idea of a “reunion” became a bit scary, because when I think of reunions, I think of someone like The Eagles making zillions of dollars playing their old tunes for their old fans in big arenas. Yes, I wanted Sleater-Kinney to return, fiercely, but I also feared that return, because up to the hiatus, they could do no wrong, and I didn’t want that near-perfection to be muddied. (If you can hunt down a copy, the classic work on this subject is Mark Shipper’s 1978 novel, Paperback Writer, which tells the story of a truer-than-fact band, The Beatles, who finally give in to calls for a reunion. They cut a new album and go on tour. The album sucks, the audience only wants to hear the oldies, and The Beatles end up as an opening act for Peter Frampton.)
Early in 2014, I read an article about Carrie that detailed some of the personal traumas she went through in the later years of the band. It gave me further understanding of why a hiatus was needed. In a post on March 21, 2014, I wrote as an aside, “it’s time to finally say goodbye to the word ‘hiatus’”. I had to come to terms with the way “the hiatus” had become “the end”.
What we didn’t know was that, on the sly, the band had gotten back together and were recording a new album. OK, they aren’t the biggest band in the world, but I’m astounded that no word of this leaked out. We were completely clueless about the potential existence of an eighth album.
But then came the announcement that they were releasing a box set of their previous albums in remastered format. And inside the box was … a 7” single with a new song, “Bury Our Friends”. A new song???????????????????
What followed was the news that S-K had recorded a new album, and would be touring behind it in 2015.
The new single was very good … for at least one track, they had defeated the Reunion Curse. Subsequent interviews tell us that the members of the band are just as wary of the Curse … they didn’t want to just tour and play oldies, they wanted to make an album, and they kept things secret in part because they wanted to be sure they were happy with the music they were making before putting it out in public.
Maybe it’s that desire to be true to what made them special in the first place. I don’t know. But with No Cities to Love, the question isn’t if it is up to the high standards they have set. No, the question is, how high does it rank within the entire S-K catalog? Because it is that good.
Oh, I’m sure most people thought we’d all say it was good just because we waited so long and we had no perspective and we would like it no matter if it was worthwhile. I might have thought some of those things, myself. But such thoughts only last about as long as it takes to put on the first song on the album, “Price Cut”. It’s about working a low-end job in a bad economy … and it is nowhere near as dreary as that sounds. In fact, it fits right in with the Sleater-Kinney we know. What is nice, right from the start, is that No Cities to Love is recognizably Sleater-Kinney without just piling on the nostalgia for the good old days. The album fits with the others. It has some differences in the sound and production, but that’s always been part of their art … think of the difference between, say, Dig Me Out and The Woods. Janet’s drums still rool. Some say Corin’s vocals are a bit less harsh … can’t say I hear that, but if it brings in new fans, I’m all for it. Carrie’s guitar is more concise than before, especially when compared to something like “Let’s Call It Love.” She says her piece and gets out. Her guitar remains the most idiosyncratic thing about the S-K sound … as I said to a friend, not many people sing like Corin because they can't, but no one plays guitar like Carrie because she sounds like she's from another planet.
It’s hard to pick a favorite track, which is a good sign … any one of them might be tops at a given moment. But I’m am particularly taken with “Hey Darling”, one of the few numbers that I’ve read even the slightest negativity about. It’s not just the lyrics … let’s be honest, I barely pay attention to lyrics until I’ve listened a hundred times, although I find “Hey Darling” intriguing in the way is suggests a hesitancy about returning to the road: “Sometimes the heat of the crowd feels a little too close, Sometimes the shout of the room makes me feel so alone.” No, it’s the sound of Corin’s vocals, and the exquisite melody of the chorus. I swear, this could be a hit single, and I’m not one of those fans who thinks a hit is beneath the band.
I mentioned the conciseness of Carrie’s playing … the production as a whole is very tight, quite unlike those moments in The Woods (and in the tour that accompanied it) when it sounded like the band was going to escape the record entirely and burst madly onto the streets. Sleater-Kinney are as confident on No Cities to Love as I have ever heard them, as befits a group of 40-somethings who have been doing this for a long time. I feel a lot of pleasure when I listen to the album. I’m sure when I get down to the lyrics I’ll find the bittersweet feelings below the surface, but for now, it just makes me feel good. I mean, I go through emotional turmoil every time I hear “One More Hour”, I love that song like I love no other, but it is not a pleasurable song.
Here is “Hey Darling”, and, what the heck, for old times’ sake, “One More Hour”. You see, “One More Hour” was the last song they ever played live, it is THE breakup song of all time, and if it was emotional back in the day, it was almost unbearable during that long hiatus. Now that they are back, I can listen to it again.