Rock duo Sleater-Kinney’s new album, Little Rope, explores feelings of loss in songs layered with contradictions, complexity and wildness. By John Kinsella.

Sleater-Kinney’s Little Rope is an album of anguish and wonder

Two women in black clothing.
Carrie Brownstein (left) and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney.
Credit: Chris Hornbecker

Although Janet Weiss left the band in 2019, it’s hard to listen to Sleater-Kinney’s taut new album, Little Rope, without her remarkable post-punk beats trying to break into my head. But these days Sleater-Kinney is essentially a duo – Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker – supported by accomplished extra musicians, and this album has different energies, different needs and different answers to offer. It’s very much a post-everything album.

During a radio interview with The SoCal Sound’s Julie Slater in January, Brownstein spoke of losing her mother and stepfather in a car accident midway through making Little Rope. I found her comments about music, life and grief to be affecting poetry in themselves: “Music is the choreography of living and I was suddenly confronted with death; and I knew these steps that could bring me back into the world. And I kept doing them and Corin, instead of bringing me food, kept bringing me songs and music.” She also noted that though one song had already had its lyrics laid down and other work was fairly advanced, this confrontation with loss and grief had an immediate effect on the nature of the album.

I suppose the conversation about making art in the shadow of loss strikes home because I lost my own father some months ago. I am finding that even what I was working on before his decline and death is now being affected by it. One back-engineers in an attempt to bring both closeness and distance, to make up for absence. Loss reaches back as well as forward and maybe art can bring perspective.

As a band – and as friends who have worked together for so long – Brownstein and Tucker talk of the intertwined and organic nature of their process and their ability to be both critical and vulnerable. I admire the integrity of their collaboration and willingness to discuss process, because Little Rope is an extended metaphor that examines those complex musical spaces between the personal and public, between what is shared and what can’t be.

I think of the band as sound poets, enactors of melodic discord, soaring and collapsing vocal conversations and bone-shifting reverb. Their albums are “events” in the situationist sense, but with a low-key gesture towards the politics of making art in the now. In the self-taught virtuosity of their song-making and playing, Sleater-Kinney create unique sound patterns in which vocals and lyrics weave into the instrumentation, creating interstices and centres “that cannot hold” but do.

The use of a line by “poet-undertaker” Thomas Lynch in the key fourth song, “Hunt You Down”, underpins how they reach for the ways we all struggle with grief. It’s a song with jags and hooks, edges and feints, crying out of the tapestry of loss and threat, almost frightening in how the Brownstein vocal emerges from the chorus. Sonically, it’s where the Shangri-Las meet Kurt Schwitters. The complicating rock song.

Opening the album, “Hell” starts with a neo-noir Western feel before it bursts into life/anti-life tensions, a sublimated power-string work that picks its way through doubt, threat, desperation and even ennui. It’s a darkly brilliant song with a “Good Vibrations” complexity that gives as it takes away. “Needlessly Wild” has a ’70s vibe – a touch of Joan Jett, even of the Sweet and glam rock – but with a repetitive build of elusive undercurrents. So much happens in the subtle conversations between instrumentation and melody, dissonant “counterpoint” and post-punk-jazz diversions. It’s a breathless, even exasperated, reach for the evasive – the essence, ironic and literal, of wildness.

Contrast with the wistful “Say It Like You Mean It”, with its semi-comforting guitar ripostes out of the sadness. Brownstein’s lead guitar tracks down the Tucker melodies, almost translating and transcribing them into the otherworldly – momentum with poise, closure with openness. It’s got a tangy (bitter) sweetness that actually sounds better in recorded live performances, which is not to suggest the John Congleton production isn’t good, because it is. It’s almost too good. Even the murky guitar wash two thirds in is concise in its placement and balance... maybe too concise. “Small Finds” is full of pockets and folds, not quite rushing along – rather holding back, words drawn through the wires of the guitars, with a Le Tigre-like undertone.

The opening of “Don’t Feel Right” has a faint, distant sense of ’80s alternative dance. It’s probably the flattest of the tracks – lyrics such as “dark clouds” and “need time so move slow” are a bit easy given its subtexts, but even here the playful vocal and keyboards add an irony that make it suddenly and bizarrely comforting. It’s more than the sum of its parts: discord as harmony, glissando as processing, overlays building to sound poetry.

I want to pick up and lose the lyrics as they unfold. I’ll come back to the words in their entirety during later listenings, and for now let voice and instrument weave as they need to. Is it the luminosity out of greyness? No, the grey areas are their own illustrations, their own guides to illumination. This is grief that gives meaning to what is lost and what we can take from it, to make an art that lives in its moment.

“Six Mistakes” is almost ominous, with a desperate need for what can’t be given, then it lets loose so the discordancy becomes the unifying force. It’s all in there! The dissonant “counterpoints”, the disruptions in meaning and certainty, the iterations of need versus loss, the questions and almost brutal answers, the descent into tuba-like puffs and hyped guitar sawings. “Crusader” on the other hand is overtly political – the lyrics about conservative “book burnings” and censorship “crusades” are offset by ironic Beatlesque injections of song. It challenges the moral crusaders: will proximity to the “morally corrupt” in turn corrupt them? It’s an absurd situation that needs contesting, and the variable nature of the song’s tracking makes this a more complex response than a mere slamming. A clever and necessary song that affirms creative rights and presence.

“Dress Yourself” drops us straight into it: “in clothes you love for a world you hate”. It’s a little too easy for me and the least musically challenging: the music seems too much a vehicle for the lyrics. The keyboards and cymbals run like gossamer through what should be a tougher track than the pop it becomes: “give me a reason, give me a remedy” is a soft landing.

The album falls into its finish with a meteor shower swirl. “Untidy Creatures” is a survival song, heavily balanced but also with enough wall of sound and sonorous climbs into the collapsing ballad to make it memorable, beyond any clichés. It is a plaintive call, a working out of contradictions, an exquisite sadness that lives in its final, brief groundloop amplifier buzz, its open ending. It’s “an untidy creature that you can’t push around”.

This is an album to live through and grow with. It is a sharing full of contrasts and juxtapositions: loss and anguish, but also critique, increase and wonder.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Coming to grief".

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