Let’s Call It Love: The End That Never Happened
“If your art is done, Johnny get your gun” -Sleater-Kinney, “Entertain”
In 2005, Sleater-Kinney released their magnum opus The Woods. Before Portlandia, Wild Flag, and The Corin Tucker Band, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss crafted one of the greatest albums of all time. Certainly the highest achievement of their career as Sleater-Kinney, it would prove to be their end. Not their end like Metallica’s St. Anger production almost proved to be the band’s end, but their end as in the album is the last one they did. It’s the last formation of that sound, energy, and violence that we’ve had from them.
They have never officially called it quits, the website calls for an indefinite hiatus acting like a time capsule with the last post calling attention to their recent show, the set list downloadable, and a call for video that anyone may have to be assembled into a retrospective. Rather than dissolve they just stopped. Creating, arranging, recording, and existing. And as soon as they stopped they began anew. In separate universes, putting out new material, some harkening back to a sound once ventured, others treading new territories and languages.
At the time of its release, I was astounded, blown away by an aesthetic and feel entirely its own, and without precedent, especially in trajectory of the bands discography. I had only come to know the band about a year prior and had spent that year tracking down their records and listening accordingly in order. This was of course before iTunes and the internet really got a hold of selling/streaming online so hard media and record shops were still the best resource to chronology and experience.
The build-up was palpable. Their few year lack of a record weighted my listening and quickly gathered a cultish energy for witnessing something fresh.
Tons of 2000s bands made it their business to square Nineties indie-rock and Seventies metal. But none were as inventive—or as heavy—as the Portland riot-grrrl trio. Sleater-Kinney had already mastered bracing post-punk on 1997’s Dig Me Out, but here they slowed their torrid roll a little, giving Corine Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s guitars more room to move as they jacked the distortion way into the red and Janet Weiss re-imagined John Bonham as a dance-rock warlord. They bash Eighties nostalgia, tell a feminist fairy tale and even quiet down for a couple sensitive love songs—needed breaks from music so intense you wonder how they can contain its explosiveness.*
Immediately with the excitement of listening came a chill, a premonition, presence of prediction. I believed (and still believe) that it may in fact be too good. That it may have been too good a leap forward to recover. Being the band’s last album only ads weight to the idea, it was too good for them to get beyond.
Its origin brought about many changes.
…they signed with Sub Pop, making it their first album since 1995’s Call the Doctor not released by Kill Rock Stars; they hired Dave Fridmann to produce and recorded it in rural New York instead of Washington State; they wanted a heavier sound that mines classic rock like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix for inspiration; one song is more than 11 minutes in length.**
With all this leading the way it may have proven to be too much responsibility. Not to say they couldn’t get beyond it. Something I’d hoped for from the moment the album almost destroyed my car speakers as I had the volume up WAY TOO LOUD. But it’s complicated. This is a masterpiece if ever there was one. Fully contained in its enunciations, it’s a new beginning that required extensive remapping of the future.
[t]his hard-rock transformation sounds like an extension of all the meta songs they’ve been writing since before “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”—rock-about-rock songs that chronicle their experience as an all-woman band and that deploy that self-reflexivity as a weapon against industry double standards and general ignorance. In the past, this self-awareness often resulted in songs that sounded closed-off, each with its own extremely precise meaning that related but didn’t always connect to other songs around it. The Woods, on the other hand, is their most album-like album since The Hot Rock, each song building on the previous and leading to the next. With its artificially sweetened melody, “Modern Girl”, for instance, almost sounds saccharine (“My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day”), but coming after “Jumpers”, a song so empathetic it considers suicide a viable act of defiance, “Modern Girl” takes on deeper meanings. The pair are two sides of the same woman, the ultimate predicament: To survive these days, you have to be either suicidal or superficial. Sleater-Kinney, meanwhile, get by simply sounding fucking supersonic.**
I’m obviously not certain how their end came about. They did tour behind the album and maybe there are multitudes of backstory that fed their demise. But as one re-approaches and realizes it can still crack the veneer, you establish its classic quality—one of those bits of history that seems as viable today as it ever was, and maybe better for it. Maybe a swan song is just what they wanted. Rather than drifting that slow road to hell where everyone decrees irrelevance, maybe the goal was one more kick through the door to solidify their place amongst the gods of rock.
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