“We were a moving train – we just pressed pause.” These words, spoken by Sleater-Kinney’s guitarist and singer Carrie Brownstein a few days ago in an interview with Billboard, are at the root of what makes No Cities to Love such a great album. Brownstein would go on to add, “it’s not a reunion – it’s a continuation.” The message that this is not a nostalgia trip or a cash-grab comeback could not be clearer, and if the band member’s insistence on this fact isn’t enough for you, then you only have to listen to No Cities to Love to realise that it is the long awaited eighth Sleater-Kinney album, and the follow-up to 2005’s critically acclaimed The Woods.
Written over the past two years, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss recorded the album in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland with long-time collaborator and producer John Goodmanson. They approached the album with manic meticulousness, determined to produce something that could stand up with the rest of their output. In an e-mail to NPR announcing the band’s return, Brownstein wrote that “[they] didn’t want to take any […] song for granted, everything had to have an intention and earn its place.” The end result is a blistering, high-tempo album that just stretches over the half-hour mark without ever slowing down.
From the take down of twenty first century consumerism in opening track Price Tag to meditations on death, identity and love, the lyrics are as whip-smart as ever and delivered by Tucker’s powerful howl and Brownstein’s snarl. Both Price Tag and Fangless set themselves up as catchy, polished indie-rock songs, but there’s always something simmering beneath the surface that bubbles up as the songs progress. By the time you’re singing along with the chorus for Price Tag there’s the anger and frustration that underpinned much of Sleater-Kinney’s earlier politicised output, updated for the post-recession riot grrrl. Brownstein’s scintillating guitar lines bristle throughout, the perfect accompaniment to Tucker’s powerful bluesy vocals on tracks like Surface Envy where they announce something of a mission statement; “We win, we lose, only together do we break the rules / We win, we lose, only together do we make the rules” – it’s a powerful, fist-in-the air chorus, something the album isn’t short on. By the time the second chorus rolls around on No Cities to Love you won’t only be singing along, you’ll be incorporating the melody into your consciousness where it’ll stay for weeks.
And OH THE HOOKS AND BRIDGES AND CHORUSES in A New Wave, good God! Janet’s drum fills are just a thing of beauty, a fitting ballast point as the song breaks down before being pulled back in. You’ll know the bit I mean, but it’s around the 2.11 mark before it comes back to “no-one here is taking notice / No outline will ever hold us / It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me.” Then there’s Corin going full-Corin on Gimme Love, a song that alternates between spit, snarl and soul with some of the crunch of The Woods, the sparseness of The Hot Rock and the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of No Cities to Love. Then there’s Bury Our Friends, the track that heralded the band’s continuation, which stomps in with one of the best choruses on the album, “Exhume our idols and bury our friends / We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in” before it ends all too abruptly. This is the only negative thing I have to say about the album. By the time Corin closes the prog-tinged Fade with “oh what a price that we paid, my dearest nightmare, a conscience, the end” it all feels too brief.
Yet, in keeping it brief they achieve their mission statement. Everything here has earned its place. There’s no fat to trim. No Cities to Love is a triumph. I always wondered where Sleater-Kinney could go after an album like The Woods, and here, a decade later, they’ve given us the only answer.
No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney is out on Monday 19th January via Sub Pop.