Sleater-Kinney is back with The Woods, a hard-charging, full-throttle, feedback- and distortion-heavy album with crackerjack drumming that changes time signatures on a dime.
It’s a totally different beast from Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock. Reviewers have pointed out that it’s often overblown and excessive—check out the slurred, metallic solo in the middle of “What’s Mine Is Yours”—and some critics have floated around the “classic rock” adjectival clause. But that’s part of why I love the record so much. As good as Sleater-Kinney often is, the trio often seemed to be looking over its shoulder in the past. Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss kept their songs under four minutes and kept the dynamic to two-guitars-and-drums more to keep in good graces with the Olympia dogma than because these were good musical ideas. The raw, do-it-yourself riot-grrl aesthetic (and doesn’t that sound so 1994?) sometimes hampered the band’s style. Despite its stripped-down instrumentation, Sleater-Kinney has always been more lyrically complicated and musically ambitious than its peers. (Quick thinking: Do you remember the name of the last L7 album? Can you think of more than two songs by Seven-Year Bitch?) Tucker’s plaintive caterwaul and carefully constructed lyrics have always been more ambiguous and fueled by contradictory impulses than was acceptable in a scene that emphasized clarity and clear-cut opinion.
In The Woods, the band finally cuts loose.
“Let’s Call It Love” runs for eleven minutes. “Jumpers” has keyboard echoes and fluctuations. “Modern Girl” is shimmering and surprisingly pretty, all the better to mask its increasingly dark sentiment. The album was produced by Dave Fridmann, who also produced the last two Flaming Lips records. In interview, the band has acknowledged his influence, but there’s something else going on. The title and the album cover give us a clue. The cover shows a red curtain drawing back to reveal a stage set and the band name. Right off the bat, we’re made aware that we’re entering a world of theatricality. The album swoops and dives like a melodrama but it contains all kinds of ambiguities. Here’s sample lyrics from “Entertain”:
You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984
Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore
It’s better than before
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new with 1972
Where is the “fuck you”?
Where’s the black and blue?
Okay, the band is slapping silly all the groups—Interpol, Fischerspooner, the Strokes, the White Stripes, take your pick—who are gleaning from previous decades of music and fashion without adding anything of their own. But “Entertain” is so bombastic that it could fit in at a 1970s arena-rock concert, and it sneers well enough to fit in at CBGB’s circa 1978.
But here’s the trick: Sleater-Kinney isn’t just gleaning, but adding its own problems, contradictions, attitudes, and politics to the mix, and undercutting all this with a big whoosh of glee and abandon. When the song shouts “The lines are drawn/ Whose side are you on?,” it’s thrilling to note that Sleater-Kinney hasn’t chosen a side quite yet.
It’s that shrug, that willingness to rock out while remaining ambivalent, that differentiates SK from most punk bands. That unease brings us back to the title. Broadway fans are familiar with Stephen Sondheim, that master composer of theatrical ambivalence and uncertainty. His complex, sometimes frustratingly challenging music all but disguises sentiments of true love (from Company) such as “It’s all so simple:/ Relax, let go, let fly/ So someone tell me, why/ Can’t I?” Or how’s this take on the sacrifices that love entails, from Anyone Can Whistle: It takes “Someone to need you too much/ Someone to know you too well/ Someone to pull you up short,/ To put you through hell.”
His 1986 musical, a fairy tale full of that characteristic Sondheim ambivalence, was titled Into the Woods. I think Sleater-Kinney is making an homage to him. Certainly, the band has made an album that, like a Sondheim musical, defies expectations, that swims in ambiguities, that challenges you to listen to it all. Take “Wilderness”: a couple “said ‘I do’ in the month of May/ said ‘I don’t’ just the very next day.” In the chorus, we realize that “When we felt the heat/ Couldn’t turn it into fire/ Too caught up in our own desires.” That frustration—of a couple with chemistry being thwarted by, well, each other—sounds like a Sondheim sentiment through and through.
In “Steep Air,” she sings (or maybe it’s Brownstein here) that she’s “tired of waiting on a plane that don’t have wing/ This runway’s rotten with the dirt and weeds.” By the end, she’s “booked my ticket/ And I packed my bags,” but the last line is a shrug: “But who’s to say I don’t have wings.”
A song with a sighing, what-the-hell title like “Let’s Call It Love” could fit into any Sondheim musical. The song meanders thrillingly, like the band is making it up as it goes along. The only post-punk song with these kinds of wild flourishes that I can think of is Hüsker Dü’s “Reoccurring Dreams” at the end of Zen Arcade.
So, Sleater-Kinney has thrown down the gauntlet. It’s not a punk band any longer, or not just a punk band, or maybe it never was in the first place. From the first batch of squalling feedback to the last note, The Woods demands full attention. Meet the challenge.