Relief washed over me as I heard the precise, severe riff that intros “Price Tag,” the morally damning opening song on Sleater-Kinney’s new album No Cities to Love. Few bands feel this absolutely crucial 20 years in. Sleater-Kinney remains essential, but for different reasons now than before they went on hiatus eight years ago. Their kick-down-the-door intensity and commitment to sonic evolution meant Sleater-Kinney were not only an important social and political voice, but an enthralling one as well. As a young woman, getting into their music felt like an osmosis of power; being near it elicited the same kind of internal jolt as empowerment pop had for me, but with all the added benefits of having the spirit of activism behind it as well.
Sleater-Kinney came out of Olympia’s Riot Grrrl movement when Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker were in their early 20s. On 1995’s self-titled debut, they screamed about the injustices of living while female, most poignantly on “A Real Man,” which boils down to: “I’m not interested in joining your club, and please stop talking to me about your dick.” Variations on this theme can be found throughout the Sleater-Kinney discography, in varying states of politeness, but it’s far from the band’s only approach to third-wave feminism. The desire to be treated as equals to their male counterparts — to not be pointed out as anything other — defines songs like “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” “Male Model,” and “The Professional.” Soon, the band’s political aspirations took aim at more than the patriarchy, with consumerism and the War in Iraq featuring as Sleater-Kinney worked through their original run of seven albums in a little more than a decade.
Even when they were fighting injustices in their lyrics, much of Sleater-Kinney’s power seemed to stem from the sounds they created together. I don’t mean that metaphorically. Sleater-Kinney albums require a lot of energy to even listen to. That’s neither a criticism nor a comment on how political they all are, each in its own distinct way. But every square inch of sound is jam-packed with expression. Brownstein and Tucker’s patchwork quilt of guitar lines and vocal yelps demands mental untangling. Janet Weiss’s percussion is like a foot tapping intuitively on the pavement.
Take “Gimme Love,” the most lyrically straightforward song on No Cities to Love. Tucker’s voice is a blow to the head that’ll leave you seeing stars for two minutes. She strives for as much power as possible in the musical equivalent of a crawlspace. Her vocal foil — the girlish chirps of “gimme love, gimme love” from her bandmates — turns sour before the song slips away into a spiral of minor tonality. Every sweetness must be tempered. How exhausting this seems on paper, how rewarding it sounds when it all clicks into place in your brain. As No Cities to Love exhibits, it’s this kind of power that has only increased with age and experience when it comes to Sleater-Kinney. Needless to say, this is not usually the case with bands entering their third decade of existence. You can kindly hold your comments about women losing their luster as they enter middle age.
As musicians change as people, so does their work. In the case of Sleater-Kinney, there isn’t a decline in quality, so much as a shift — but it’s one that’s been happening within the band since before the turn of the millennium, a few albums before their hiatus. The big difference now is that indie rock (or something like it) is a space where casual sexism is called out with increasing frequency (see: Ariel Pink). From the Crutchfield sisters of Swearin’ and Waxahatchee to Screaming Females and Perfect Pussy, there are young independent acts featuring strong women that, to put it crudely, are allowed to take up space in scenes that would have resisted them in decades past. Things are far from perfect, but Sleater-Kinney are returning to a world they helped shape. I sincerely hope they make themselves at home.
“When the band first started, it was so much about carving out some space for myself and our audience and our songs,” Brownstein recently told Pitchfork. “I felt like power meant that you had to be engaged in a certain kind of struggle, by force of movement and battle — and that’s very exhausting. Now, power is more about certainty and stillness, and realizing that the infrastructures that we gather around and worship are the least powerful things.”
It’s easy to be pissed off about the way the world is when you’re young. Before any of your earnest attempts to inspire change have gone sideways or been misunderstood. Before the messiness of life demands you tend to it. There is, however, every incentive to be political when you’re older, once you’ve experienced how The Rules affect the way you live. It’s just not typically how it goes in punk rock. We’re lucky to be able to watch Sleater-Kinney explore this underserved territory with heart, wisdom, and energy. No Cities to Love is no uncertain proof of that fact.