Even when your heart is breaking: On Sleater-Kinney

I want to remember the good things first. I might not look like it, but I’m an optimist. Not necessarily in the “it’s for the best!” way or the “it’ll turn out alright!” way, but the “something good is out there and will continue to exist, come hell or high water” way. I admit that how this manifests generally makes me look like a rube. When a tabler for a charity manages to flag me down and tell a story about a bright, intelligent, but profoundly economically challenged girl in the Philippines, I want to believe it. When a stranger tells me he needs my phone so he can let his family know he’s okay, I want to believe it. When a homeless person tells me that he needs bus fare to get to his AA meeting, I want to believe it. When I think about the year 2014, I want to believe that, contrary to all evidence, it was ultimately a good year. That I figured myself out, or at least started on it. I want to remember the good things. I went to XOXO with a broken heart and met dozens of talented people and came back feeling like I had not only done something brave but that I was capable and courageous. I took a project at my job that made me feel like I was productive, intelligent, solving the right problems. I started writing for the Arcade Review, an amazing publication filled with astounding, formidable work. I don’t know if happiness necessarily comes easily for anyone. But sadness, at least, comes easily to me. I know I’m not the only person who has to do what feels like a disproportionate amount of work just to feel not depressed: we wouldn’t have diagnoses and medication and counseling if I was. I want to remember the good things. And I know this: some good things happened, and they happened to happen to me. But knowing and believing are different, distant things.

I found Sleater-Kinney only a year or two after they went on indefinite hiatus. It was my second year of college, and I was curled on an stuffy school-owned sofa, feeling utterly terrible about everything ever. I was browsing Last.fm, which I guess is kind of like Spotify before we had Spotify, and I saw the photograph, among all the other recommendations: three women leaning into the street, bored, one with her hand raised to hail a taxi. The album was The Hot Rock. The song was “Get Up.” That was the start.

That album, I found, turned out to be not entirely representative of S-K’s oeuvre. True, the band seems to have a habit of reinventing themselves with every album; it’s fascinating to listen to their discography in a marathon session, from the barebones punk of their self-titled album to the near classic-rock production of The Woods to this year’s grungy, fuzzy No Cities To Love. And there’s a definite through-line to nearly all of it—if not sonically, then at least thematically: their songs often embody anger (one that as a cis male I honestly can’t speak to except in generalities—and really not even then—but here we go), anger at corrupt(ing) systems, systems that view them as “just women” (see, e.g.: “Modern Girl,” “Was It a Lie,”), and the power that arises from that anger (“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” “Let’s Call It Love,” “Male Model,” “Prisstina”). I honestly don’t think there are many bands that have achieved that kind of coherence from their careers, that started so fully formed that the only path was to change their form entirely.

But The Hot Rock (1999) stands away from that. I’m not saying that this makes it better or worse than their other albums—simply different. Dig Me Out (the album prior) seethes and growls with Carrie Brownstein’s guitar, a nearly perfect rock album, the one that made Sleater-Kinney and Call the Doctor—tremendous records in their own right—feel like mere warm-up. Corin Tucker wields her voice like a whip. You can break your knuckles on Janet Weiss’s drums. And All Hands on the Bad One (2000, the one after Hot Rock) could easily be called the party album, politically charged and brimming with hooks and begging for sing-alongs. And from there, it’s a straight-shot to what Sleater-Kinney sounds like today.

But, then, The Hot Rock is a sharp detour right in the middle of their career. It’s sedate (as sedate as a rock album can get, anyway) in comparison to Dig Me Out, introspective and spiritual next to All Hands on the Bad One. With “The Size of Our Love,” the trio tells a story about a couple dealing with cancer: “I fight for a heart, I fight for a strong heart / I fight to never know this sickness you know / But I know it’s my own, I gave it a home.” (More often than not, I skip it—I’m usually not steeled enough to listen to it.) With “Get Up,” they stare, hearts open wide, at the beautiful impossibility of how anything is anything at all:

And when the body finally starts to let go
Let it all go at once
Not piece by piece
But like a whole bucket of stars
Dumped into the universe

Or how about “A Quarter to Three”, where they look at the wrong side of a failed relationship: “And the photo booth strip, / and the letter you wrote / they feel like nothing I could hold.”

I could go on. It’s not like The Hot Rock was the first and last time they did any introspection, and it’s not like the album lacks for grand sociopolitical statements either—far from it—but it is their only album where internal conflict came to the fore. And it’s my favorite album for that reason. (Dig Me Out is probably the objectively best album, but, well, that’s another article.) I remember listening to it with a certain soul-ache that I couldn’t express and wouldn’t understand for another five years, but feeling like this band had somehow tapped into that hurt, rang it like a bell, could speak to it, could create music and art from it. I remember the complicated optimism of “Burn, Don’t Freeze,” the cosmic love in the aforementioned “Get Up,” the grit and resolve radiating off “Start Together.” I wondered what part of me had kept me from ever realizing that those things could be part of my life. I remember how badly I wanted those things for myself, despite myself.

Oh little light that shines for me in the dark of night
Oh little sigh, sometimes I follow you all the way home
I would almost have to ask you, I hate to be led
So give me a spark, I can look for instead
“Night Light”

When I learned that Sleater-Kinney was releasing another album, I really did flip a lid. I had given up on ever seeing them perform—one of the tragedies of making your favorite band an apparently disbanded one is that what you see is all you’ll ever get. So when their new single, “Bury Our Friends,” came out, I put it on repeat for a week. When No Cities to Love was released, I listened to it for hours and hours—I still do. When they went on tour again, I was resolved to see them no matter what. And I did.

And I can only barely tell you what it was like to be there. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. As they took the stage, that feeling of wanting better flooded back from wherever I’d pushed it down to protect myself. About halfway through their set, Carrie Brownstein took up her mic and said, “If you think you’re invisible out there, you’re not: we’re looking at you.” Which meant more than I can really express. If I’m being cynical, she probably said that at every show. But I heard her say it that evening, and I know she said it to us. I was thinking: I’m glad I’m alive right now. For once, believing came easy.