This week marks one year since the release of Sleater-Kinney’s brilliant No Cities To Love. As I wasn’t blogging last January, I didn’t really write about the album at the time (apart from offering unsolicited advice about the greatness of Sleater-Kinney to Matt over at The Lesser Column). Probably just as well, given that my initial reaction to the album was some kind of stupefied awe and I doubt that I could have written anything particularly coherent about it for a few months anyway. Once it got to December and I was gathering together my lists for the albums and songs of the year, Sleater-Kinney loomed so large over my listening for 2015 that it was possibly a little dishonest to restrict Sleater-Kinney to only three songs in my favourite twenty songs of the year. As I reflected more and more on No Cities To Love while writing these lists, I realised that it was not only clearly my favourite album of 2015, but it has pretty rapidly become one of my favourite albums of all time.
Now in the interests of full disclosure, Sleater-Kinney have been my favourite band for much longer than the decade since their previous album The Woods and the “indefinite hiatus” which followed. During the intervening years, there had been some genuinely great music from the various band members, Janet’s Quasi released a couple of exceptional albums in American Gong and Mole City, the eponymous Wild Flag by Carrie and Janet’s “supergroup” was my favourite album of 2011 and Corin Tucker Band’s Kill My Blues was my favourite album of 2012. However, none of that (admittedly excellent) music was able to capture that perfect chemistry created by Corin, Carrie and Janet playing together that was so evident from 1997’s Dig Me Out onwards.
When Sleater-Kinney announced their return in late 2014 via a mysterious white seven inch single in the Start Together box set featuring the inscription “1/20/15”, I was obviously excited. Although given the trend toward band reunions based more on financial rather than artistic imperatives and the awful paint by numbers albums which have inevitably followed, there was always a bit of a nagging concern that the 2015 Sleater-Kinney may not live up to the far higher standards that I expect from Sleater-Kinney over any other band. That said, the two tracks that the band released in 2014 prior to the album’s release (“Bury Our Friends” and “Surface Envy”) went a long way towards removing any doubts that I had, as did the involvement of producer John Goodmanson who had worked with the band on One Beat and Dig Me Out, my two favourite Sleater-Kinney albums.
From the opening track “Price Tag”, it was obvious that that spark that Sleater-Kinney regularly made into a wall of fire was still there. Everything so great and unique to Sleater-Kinney was turned up to eleven on “Price Tag”: An arresting opening riff from Corin is joined a few seconds later by Janet’s crashing drums and a contrasting riff from Carrie, while Corin and Carrie’s guitars are in conversation with each other, we hear the full range of Corin’s remarkable voice, until a change in tempo gives us a doom laden riff (somewhat reminiscent of The Breeders awesome “Safari”) and Carrie stridently singing a bridge, which turns into a conversation as Corin sings the chorus over Carrie singing the bridge. On about the tenth or eleventh listen, the lyrics reveal themselves to be not only a commentary on the post-GFC stresses of ordinary families, but also the corporate machine of the music industry and the battle between art and commerce. Awesome… And that’s just the first track.
Despite its title, the second track “Fangless” has some serious bite and is a perfect showcase for the call and response between Corin and Carrie’s guitars and vocals. Driven by an angular riff straight out of the Gang Of Four’s Entertainment album, Corin pleads the almost desperate verses (“Sharp teeth in a broken jaw/Hungry, but I’ll hunger on”) before the chorus where Carrie takes down the fallen idol that is the subject of the song with her best punk rock snarl (“Did you forget we once saw you as a grand/A beast and a saviour, a mountain, a man… Now you’re flimsy and fangless, drooping and drowned”).
The next track “Surface Envy” was the second song that the band released following the announcement of No Cities To Love and it provided serious reassurance that Sleater-Kinney were not only a band that still had something to say, but one who were completely able to kick ass. “Surface Envy” tears along with Corin’s riff jarringly contrasted by Carrie’s, accompanied by possibly the strongest vocal performance by Corin on the album (which is saying something). A song which unashamedly celebrates Sleater-Kinney, it had the perfect line for apparently every music critic in the world to pick up on (“We win, we lose/Only together do we make the rules”), although the line immediately preceding it seems to speak more deeply about the unity in the band and what they want to achieve (“I feel so much stronger now that you’re here/We’ve got so much to do, let me make that clear”). Did I mention that it also kicks ass?
The title track “No Cities To Love” is the first point in the album where things slow down a little bit, although not for long. Using the metaphor of atomic tourism (which is apparently a thing), the narrator of the song is in a constant search for strength through others, but is constantly coming up empty. From the bridge (which in the best possible way has the feel of an 80s Duran Duran track) the song builds and builds from the reflective to the energetic, picking up the pace to effortlessly lead into the frisky fifth track…
“A New Wave” is filled with contradictions. The song’s upbeat and incredibly catchy opening is matched with Carrie’s opening line “Well every day I throw a little party”, before three lines later asking “Should I leap or go on living, living?”. Lyrically “A New Wave” feels like the flipside to the penultimate track “Hey Darling”, with Carrie still grappling with the doubts and fears (“Hear the voices venomous and thrilling/In my head they’re always calling) which have been banished to the past in Corin’s “Hey Darling”, but with hope that they will be defeated (“Let’s destroy a room with this love”). The buoyant tempo of the song is abruptly ended in the middle as Corin and Carrie’s guitars furiously break the song apart over Janet’s brutal drumbeat, before defiantly returning to the chorus with a stripped back arrangement. Picking up where it started, the song then ends on a long, exuberant fadeout. The Bob’s Burgers video for the song is also pretty great.
The frenetic pace of the first side comes to a dark stop as side two opens with “No Anthems”. A brooding song about desire which sonically matches a couple of the more interesting tracks from Nirvana’s In Utero. Opening with a crashing wall of noise, it then moves to a quiet and seductive verse which is abruptly shattered by the bridge and chorus, before repeating this cycle. This is followed by “Gimme Love” another song about desire (“The one thing we all hunger for/I wish there was a little more”). The shortest song on the album, it picks up the pace again, with Corin passionately singing from the perspective of the outsider (“Born too small too weak too weird”) over a glam rock backing.
“Bury Our Friends” was the first track released from the album, appearing unannounced as an unnamed disc in the Start Together box set. As the introduction to the rebirth of Sleater-Kinney it was a track that I listened to over and over again for a month or so (until the subsequent release of “Surface Envy”) looking for clues as to what to expect from the first Sleater-Kinney album for a decade. Having already overanalysed this song within an inch of its life, its probably easiest to say that on reflection it was the perfect choice as a teaser for the new album. With its meditation on celebrity and frantic pace, thematically and musically it is probably the most representative track for the album as a whole. On a side note, the “Drumless Version” of this track that was made available with the purchase of some Janet Weiss “Signature” drum sticks, is worth seeking out as the very absence of the drums provides a perfect document of just how important Janet’s drumming is to the sound of Sleater-Kinney.
“Hey Darling” sees Sleater-Kinney brilliantly channel the first Pretenders album, to the extent that I replaced the less than great “Space Invader” with this song as track five on my iTunes copy of Pretenders and finally made that album perfect. On “Hey Darling” Corin eloquently sings of the destruction and reformation of Sleater-Kinney, which Carrie describes in an equally eloquent, but less succinct way in her excellent memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. In a song seemingly directed at the band’s fans, Corin recognises the questions hanging over the band’s hiatus in the opening verse (“Explanations are thin/But I feel it’s time/You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time/Disappearing act right before your eyes”), before the second verse describes its necessity and promises a new beginning (“Hey Darling the situation was justified/There were some things I saw before I realized/That I was meant to be infinitely by your side/Distractions always hit but we’re good this time”).
The album ends with “Fade”, which let’s face it, is a pretty great title for a final track. Probably the darkest track on the album (something which is underlined quite literally in the opening lines: “When the last strip of light is dimming/When the spotlight starts to fade”), “Fade” is closer to the Led Zeppelin inspired riffs of The Woods than any other track on No Cities To Love. A meditation on performance and touring (“All of the roles that we played/Hit your mark, push the walls, stretch the stage”), “Fade” can certainly be read as a look at the events leading up to the band’s break up in 2006.
With its ten songs clocking in at just over half an hour, No Cities To Love is furious but focussed, with Corin and Carrie’s distinctive guitars and vocals locked in a call and response accompanied by Janet’s peerless drumming, powering Sleater-Kinney’s still unique sound. No Cities To Love is possibly Sleater-Kinney’s most perfectly crafted album and almost certainly their most accessible. Despite what I have read elsewhere, the band absolutely haven’t picked up where The Woods left off in 2005, they’ve picked up from where Sleater-Kinney would have been if they had recorded an album in 2014. This is not the sound of a band stuck somewhere in their past reliving their glory days, but the sound of the greatest band on the planet showing everyone else how it is done.