The most powerful line on Sleater-Kinney’s new album No Cities To Love is also one of the simplest. “I can be, I can be, I can be-e-e”, Carrie Brownstein sings on ‘A New Wave’, firing on every syllable before letting out something like a sensual sigh. It’s a strangely erotic moment (probably strange only because it’s a sensation more commonly found on ‘BEYONCE’ rather than indie rock records). Not pornographic, but in the Audre Lorde sense of the word: that “the erotic” – “the power of our unexpressed or unrecognised feeling” – “offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.” There’s no object to Brownstein’s intent – instead that rare sense of being able to inhabit oneself fully that leaves you open to limitless possibility.
As technology has become a more pervasive quality of our lives, artists have grown preachier about getting back to what they perceive as authentic experience. I’ve loved some of these records. Savages’ Silence Yourself commands listeners to shed distractions from their lives, but then I always think, well, what comes after that? Arcade Fire would like us to wait patiently and write letters, while Jack White suggests a retreat to the 16th century sanatorium of the mind.
No Cities To Love doesn’t mention technology explicitly (I guess “all I can hear is the echo and the ring” is a plausible reference to the online echo chamber), but it recognises the distractions, the impotent power inside and outside that’s holding us back, and offers a blueprint to smash it down and live in a way that’s true to oneself, not some quaintly drawn scheme of authenticity. And it’s realistic, not preachy.
The opening track on No Cities To Love is ‘Price Tag’, a Corin Tucker-led song about the effects of consumerist culture on the individual – namely the working mother, who squeezes inside a one-size-fits-all uniform that pinches and marks her body. She hustles her children out of the door on a bellyful of scrambled eggs before getting caught in a shelf-stacking system that requires machine-like function from human bodies, and which has taught her kids that brand-name food is better than their home-cooked breakfast. Sheer luck is the only way she can imagine escaping from the churn, this ride that has her strapped tightly into the roles of being a mother, worker, provider, but literally leaves no room for her.
Arranged a certain way, No Cities traces the process of giving up what Lorde calls “being satisfied with suffering”:
- ‘Gimme Love’ recognises the way in which anyone “born too small, too weak, too weird” – too female, too queer, too poor, too physically unable, too not-strong-white-male – is kept from realising their desires as a way of marginalising their power.
- ‘No Anthems’ wields socialized female behaviour as a stealth weapon against those who imposed it: “Seduction, pure function/It’s how I learned to speak/Steal your power in my hour/I will change ‘most everything”.
- ‘Surface Envy’ and ‘Bury Our Friends’ are odes to the way in which that power and joy becomes infinitely stronger when combined with that of an ally.
- ‘Fangless’ is a direct attack on outdated power, destroying an impotent patriarchal figure, emboldened by the defeat, and defiant about fighting on to leave your own mark – to reinstate “the evidence – the scars the dents – that I was ever here” – rather than soothing the sore welts imposed by tight uniforms.
- Stitching and sewing, and the red marks of a generic fit crop up on half the songs on No Cities To Love, symbols of feminised labour wielded against their creators, and then reclaimed on ‘Bury Our Friends’: “Today I am stitched, I am sewn/Patch me up I’ve got want in my bones”.
On the surface this narrative might look just as idealistic as the ones espoused by Arcade Fire and the like. Leave trivial shit behind! Do not let machines detract from your whole-person-ness! But there are a few moments on the record that lend human depth and perspective. Most of the above songs are sung by Corin alone or Corin and Carrie. Carrie only leads two songs on the record, the gorgeous title track and ‘A New Wave’, both songs about relationships. The latter is the home to that “I can be” line, and disregards any notion of external power: no-one else’s eyes will validate her relationship, which is so powerful that it in turn will destroy anything that threatens to contain it. It reclaims the human power stolen by machines in ‘Price Tag’.
But the title track is a desperately sad song that contains my joint favourite line on the record: “I’ve grown afraid of everything that I love”, this lonely howl at the end of a song about how two people have “made a ritual of emptiness”. Even love can be reduced to something as stultifying and empty as stacking shelves.
No Cities To Love is a defiantly realistic album: the final two songs continue to lay bare the sacrifices inherent in getting what you want. On ‘Hey Darling’, Corin sings: “You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time/Disappearing act right before your eyes”. I feel like she’s raising a critical eyebrow to anyone who thinks her work – the work she lays out on ‘Price Tag’, as a mother, provider, breadwinner – is any less valid because it hasn’t been performed in the public eye. On the final song, ‘Fade’, there’s this vocal layer echoing Corin that sounds like the voice that haunts Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman: the self-doubting dissonance between public and private personae. The record’s parting shot is that an on-stage persona can be as much of a constriction and act of erasure as the worker’s pinching uniform. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But there’s hope there.
When I interviewed Corin and Carrie last month (Janet was on holiday so we spoke by phone), after we had been chatting about the lyrics for a while, I ventured that it was sort of scary to a younger listener that you never seem to reach a point of complete wholeness and self-confidence and self-assurance. Corin replied:
“That’s what makes an artist though, I think. If you’re not a searcher, and you’re not struggling – well, those are the artists that I relate to, people that are still searching for things, trying to understand how to live their life every day. That to me, the writers that I admire, anyone whose work that I am inspired by, we’re constantly re-evaluating everything.”
That’s what I think is so powerful about this record, and that line: “I can be, I can be, I can be”. I love the way the three members of this band talk about themselves as an entity: their daunting, scary, intense, singular power; their awareness that there has been nothing like them in the interim years. Ego is a standard-issue rock requirement, but it’s so exciting to hear those unfuckwithable assertions come from voices born too small, too weak, too weird, so easily silenced. But then I also love that No Cities can be sung from the top or the bottom of the mountain. It’s full of empathy for the constrictions of playing any role, levelling the playing field so that the combined force of our punching up has the strongest impact possible.