Once, in my mid-teens, I set out to investigate a fantastical and perhaps ridiculous hunch: I was not entirely convinced that the members of Sleater-Kinney were human. I’d recently heard the Olympia, Washington, trio’s blistering 1997 record Dig Me Out for the first time, and it was unlike any music I’d ever encountered — more soulful than punk, more dissonant than pop, so much more gnarled than “girly.” I was confounded. I needed to see this music to believe it. This was a little while before the secret behind every magic trick was a quick YouTube search away, so in the absence of images, Dig Me Out sparked my imagination: Was the singer possessed, or perhaps feral? Was it possible that scientists had found a way to bottle thunder, and then taught it how to play drums?
I’d heard there was some footage of the band playing in a punk documentary called Songs for Cassavetes, and when I finally tracked down a copy, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Sleater-Kinney’s performance of “Words and Guitar” blew my hair back — two minutes of gale-force, emergency-broadcast-system-triggering fury. Corin Tucker shrieks in tongues; Carrie Brownstein riffs with hurtling speed and razorlike precision. But, most amazing: They looked so normal. It seemed somehow more surreal than what I’d imagined, that this bewitching sound could come from a couple of unassuming-looking people in ringer T-shirts and sneakers. The performance now lives on YouTube, of course, and I still revisit it in those brief moments when I’m feeling jaded or defeated enough to buy into conventional wisdom: that girls can’t play as hard as boys, that punk was dead by ‘77, that human beings — let alone female human beings — are incapable of making noises violent enough to startle the gods.
Sleater-Kinney formed in Olympia in 1994. Its two founding members, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, were already veterans of the local music scene, having played in lo-fi punk bands Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17. Both sang and played guitar, and both drew inspiration from an impassioned enclave of self-taught young women around them. For all its revolutionary gusto, the American underground of the early ‘90s was still resolutely macho, so around this time, a spirited, DIY-feminist movement called riot grrrl sprung up as a much-needed response. Riot grrrls organized regional meetings, distributed homemade zines, and started boldly incendiary bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and L7. Riot grrrl’s influence on a generation of emerging musicians, artists, and writers cannot be understated. But, unfortunately, it rapidly imploded in the way that too many radical movements do, felled by infighting, ideological disagreements, and the narcissism of small differences. Though it began as a means for young women to escape the confining labels that society had laid out for them — quiet, obedient, demure — the image of the riot grrrl, too, was quickly co-opted, defanged, and patronizingly cutesy-fied by mainstream media. Newsweek cluelessly declared: “Riot Grrrl is feminism with a loud happy face dotting the ‘i.’”
While riot grrrls preached individuality, they did favor a particular sound: three chords or fewer; confrontational lyrics; shouted, singsong-y melodies. Sleater-Kinney, though, exploded these limitations. Tucker and Brownstein assembled the band just as the movement was dissolving (Janet Weiss, the drummer, joined in 1996), and in career arc rather than sound, Sleater-Kinney would eventually become riot grrrl’s answer to the Clash — a band that cupped the flame of the movement from which it sprung, kept it flickering over an impressively sustained period, and used it to fuel daring, unpredictable sonic experimentation. Sleater-Kinney often confounded listeners and critics who didn’t have the language to talk about “women in rock” without blubbering condescension, so the familiar, easily digestible “riot grrrl” epithet followed them for years. But as their sound matured, they became something much knottier and mightier than that descriptor could ever indicate. Calling Sleater-Kinney a riot grrrl band is like confusing an oak tree with an acorn.
They made seven albums in 11 years, and their discography is one of the most impeccable in the last few decades of rock. The only Sleater-Kinney album that falls short of jaw-dropping greatness is 1999’s The Hot Rock, but it’s still valuable as a peek behind the curtain: Here’s the record on which you can really hear them working out what would eventually become their signature sound of overlapping vocals and complex interlocking guitars. Tucker tunes her strings down to make up for the lack of bass, and her weighty notes tussle inextricably with Brownstein’s math-y, muscular riffs. Weiss keeps everything grounded with sheer, unshowy power.
There’s a consistency of tone and passion across their run, but no two Sleater-Kinney albums sound alike. 1996’s Call the Doctor is dark, brooding, and unruly; 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One explores taut pop construction and lyrical storytelling; the masterful One Beat deftly melds the political questioning of post-9/11 America with the more personal uncertainties of new motherhood. (“Sympathy,” a howled prayer for Tucker’s sick child, is one of the most stirring songs they’ve ever written.) With each album, they got more technically proficient, but they found a way to honor the independent spirit of the self-taught DIY scene from which they sprung. To follow their arc is to hear virtuosity gradually grow along its own twisted path. Brownstein’s style of playing develops like a limb that was broken, healed back a little crooked, but ultimately proved more lethal for its odd angle — an arm permanently set in a left hook. And then there’s Tucker: Nobody on this or any other planet sings quite like Corin Tucker. Her voice is a wildfire, a billowing force of nature igniting everything that tries to hold it back.
In 2005, the band made a vast, churning, oceanic record called The Woods, which, even played at a modest volume, is one of the loudest albums you have ever heard. The songs are huge and give off the impression that they cannot be contained — you get this creeping sense that the record is actually corroding your speakers. The Woods was an undeniable achievement, but even at the time it felt like the end of something. Where could they possibly go from there? This kind of force didn’t seem sustainable. Six years after music critic Greil Marcus dubbed them “the best band in America,” two years after an arena tour opening for Pearl Jam, and just as The Woods had put them on the brink of the kind of widespread recognition that had always evaded them, Sleater-Kinney broke up.
On October 21 of last year, Sleater-Kinney released Start Together, a boxed set containing remastered versions of all seven albums. It seemed, at last, like a definitive memorial, until fans opened the box and found a terrific surprise: a seven-inch containing a blistering new song, “Bury Our Friends,” and an empty space for an eighth LP. There was life left in them yet.
In their time apart, the three members of Sleater-Kinney followed very different paths. Brownstein, quite unexpectedly, became something of a household name thanks to her turn in the hipster-skewering sketch-comedy show Portlandia. Tucker raised two children and released as many solo albums. Weiss kept busy as one of indie-rock’s most in-demand drummers, playing with the likes of Bright Eyes, the Shins, and Stephen Malkmus. (Weiss and Brownstein also played together in the short-lived power-pop group Wild Flag.) In their heyday, Sleater-Kinney’s music was animated by a sense of intrepid forward movement and itchy dissatisfaction, but the new roles they’d taken on — celebrity, mother, virtuoso — all seemed to imply some level of personal comfort. I was thrilled to hear they were back, but more than a little nervous that a Sleater-Kinney album in 2015 couldn’t possibly be animated by that same explosive, otherworldly angst that had drawn me in years ago.
I was wrong. No Cities to Love, their new album, is in some ways the hardest-hitting thing they’ve ever done. It is at once impressively constructed and perpetually, ominously wobbly, like a building-size Jenga tower that’s always one turn away from toppling. It opens with “Price Tag,” a song about economic collapse that, fittingly, conjures a visceral feeling of vertigo; Brownstein and Tucker’s dueling riffs pile atop each other, Weiss provides steady wrecking-ball hits, and in the end, the whole thing crashes down in a gloriously dissonant heap. Things only get darker from there: “No Anthems” has the feel of a St. Vincent song rewritten in a nightmare, with Brownstein’s guitar sounding like it’s etching its signature onto sheet metal. The stomping, militant “Bury Our Friends” serves as a kind of Sleater-Kinney mission statement, an ode to anger and even pain as means for remaining spiritually awake (“This dark world is precious to me / My scars make me breathe in so deep”). Produced by longtime collaborator John Goodmanson, No Cities is a restless, agitated record — which means it actually lives up to the standards of the band’s past. “I’m never super happy when we’re working on new material,” Weiss said in an NPR interview last week, grinning at her bandmates to confirm that this was indeed a compliment.
In their absence, Sleater-Kinney left a noticeable void — nobody sounds quite like them, past or present. “After we stopped playing,” Brownstein said in a recent New York Times interview, “I was more aware that we did not have clear predecessors or successors.” She’s not wrong. At the time, those Wild Flag and Corin Tucker Band albums felt like decent-enough substitutes, but from the opening notes of No Cities to Love, it’s impossible to deny that there is a strange, unique, and possibly radioactive byproduct formed when these women play together. No Cities to Love is a three-car collision, tangled and still steaming. I find it a little too tonally constant to rank as their very best (after spending plenty of time with Start Together, I’m finally ready to bestow that title on the more varied One Beat), but it is a triumph nonetheless. One of its best tracks — and the closest the record comes to an actual pop song — is “A New Wave,” a jumpy, Brownstein-led number that proves that the people behind “Words and Guitar” are still experts at writing resolutely unsentimental anthems about how much they love playing music together. “No outline will ever hold us,” they sing in the chorus, voices entwined in stirring harmony. “It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me.”
Sleater-Kinney remain their generation’s most important feminist band, not because they so neatly and uncomplicatedly embodied the movement’s ideals, but because they showed that it is actually possible to transcend them. By the end of their run, nobody would have been caught dead calling Sleater-Kinney “pretty good, for girls” — they were and remain great, full stop. And as much as sexism continues to run rampant in the music industry, the unqualified respect that Sleater-Kinney received from listeners, critics, and peers continues to point towards something hovering on a (hopefully) not-too-distant horizon — a time when “female artists” will just be “artists,” “women’s issues” will be “humanitarian issues,” and “the girl band” won’t have to waste their time writing dis tracks about the dudes who insisted on calling them a girl band in the first place. Yes, the members of Sleater-Kinney are and always were human, in all the rich complexity that implies. They always felt to me like a fulfillment of a promise, calling to mind something Rainer Maria Rilke wrote more than a century ago in a letter to a young poet, “someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement or limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.”
*This article appears in the January 26, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.