Reality is the new fiction they say / Truth is truer these days, truth is man-made / If you're here 'cause you want to be entertained / Go away, please go away” - ‘Entertain’
It's a truth universally acknowledged that there is no such thing as a bad Sleater-Kinney record. And well, if it isn’t, it should be. But there are three that shine a little brighter than the rest; Dig Me Out was the first to fully realise the potential of the band, No Cities To Love proved that a nine year gap could not diminish their brilliance, but it's The Woods that seems to best distil all that is thrilling about their music. The central figure in this triptych stands apart as their most brutal work and the one in which they made their largest shift. It also serves as a punctuation mark in the band’s history: The Woods marks the moment they fell apart.
“In a matter of minutes Sleater-Kinney was gone. I had knocked its lights out. TKO.”
In a sharply honest account from her excellent memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein recalls the moment the walls came crashing down. It occurred during a tour in support of The Woods during which Brownstein had been suffering from shingles and anxiety attacks. The tension that had been building throughout exploded when Brownstein started to repeatedly punch herself in the face prior to a show in Brussels.
It signalled a violent and abrupt end. Following the incident, the band put a message on their website announcing an indefinite hiatus, and that was pretty much that. Of course, it would be too simplistic to weight the entire split on one moment; the three members had already spent ten years of intense recording and touring, Tucker was keen to have another child at that point, and as their individual post-Sleater-Kinney output suggests, they all had valuable additional projects to pursue outside of the band. In her book, Brownstein alludes to tensions during the recording of The Woods and in hindsight, you wonder if unconsciously they knew the record would be their last, or at least their last for a considerable amount of time. Every album they had produced up until that point displayed fierce commitment to potently visceral music, but The Woods stepped it up a notch. It feels desperately urgent.
As a band that were often described as post-punk, and affiliated with the riot grrrl movement, their music was always pretty abrasive and harsh. But for all Brownstein’s consummate shredding, Weiss’s thunderous percussion, and Tucker’s formidable howl, they’d never made a record as heavy as this . Vocally, Tucker pushes herself to a critical pitch. Even on the sassy sounding ‘Rollercoaster’ she sounds like she’s singing for her life on a track that appears to emulate the frantic level they are working at: “We had a good time at the beginning / It tasted just like all the things I was missing / I’ll go at full boil 'till you /St-, st-, st-, st-, stop me later”. But it’s on the epic ‘Let’s Call It Love” that she takes it to boiling point.
Brownstein said of recording The Woods: “Janet and I wanted this record to have teeth. Corin didn’t feel quite the same intensity at this point. There was tension." That tension is felt keenly on the track; they reclaim the traditionally male area of heavy rock/punk and remake it in their own image. It’s an unapologetic, unrelenting, and exhausting song that squares up to the listener in no uncertain terms, threatening “You better be my bloody match”. Whereas Tucker and Brownstein’s guitars used to dance around each other hypnotically, this time there’s a distinct discordance, heightened by a ferocious drum solo from the inimitable Weiss.
Tucker wasn’t the only one to make a significant shift on the record. Although Brownstein had always contributed vocals, there is not only a larger contribution here, but she sounds emboldened. ‘Entertain’ still stands as one of her most electrifying performances, and it’s surely one of the greatest rock songs of all time. It’s unforgiving in its aggressive challenge to the (predominantly male) scene that birthed them: “You come around looking 1984 / You’re such a bore, 1984 / Nostalgia, you're using it like a whore”, and you can hear the gritted teeth in every line. Add Weiss’s most impassioned drumming, and Tucker’s wild, punctuating “Woah oh oh’s”, to Brownstein’s punkish swagger and you have a thrilling combination.
In 2005 it was invigorating to hear women produce music like this following the rebranding of feminism that followed the rise of the Spice Girls and their nauseating ‘girl power’ schtick. When you’ve grown up admiring the work of women like Kim and Kelly Deal, Tanya Donelly, Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, and Sleater-Kinney, the highjacking of such ideals was a fucking inexplicable affront. The misjudged, and ridiculous, branding of the brutal authoritarian Margret Thatcher as some kind of feminist icon, combined with cartoon notions of what it is to be a woman (boorishly picking on the one in the tracksuit) laid bare their hollow version of the sisterhood and was ultimately corrosive and regressive.
Sleater-Kinney’s music was representative and authentic, always avoiding such neat branding and caricaturisation of feminity. Their songs didn’t adhere to the tradition of the female artist singing about men and love. Not that they didn’t or weren’t capable of crafting such songs; ‘One More Hour’, written in the wake of Tucker and Brownstein's own breakup, is one of their best. They never limited themselves and tackle all manner of subjects - ‘Jumpers’, for example, was inspired by the Golden Gate Bridge as a platform for those determined to commit suicide. The haunting disconnect in the way the verses are sung, which is paired brilliantly with Tucker's soaring and emotive voice in the chorus, creates a disturbing detachment. That distance dramatically disintegrates as they chillingly sing, “My falling shape will draw a line / Between the blue of sea and sky / I’m not a bird, I'm not a plane”, ending with the pair screeching, “Four seconds was the longest wait / Four seconds was the longest”. It’s just outstanding songwriting, perfectly executed.
Another exceptional song on the record is also one that has become a bit of a calling card for the band. Having taken the title of her memoir from one of the lyrics, it clearly has significance for Brownstein, and 'Modern Girl' stands out from the rest of the tracks on account of its pretty melody. Sonically it may be the record’s sweetest moment, but the deceptively optimistic lyrics that offer “My whole life was like a picture of a sunny day” are wistful but sadly ironic. As the track progresses even Weiss’s melodic harmonica is eclipsed by a strange distortion that ruffs up the surface, and Brownstein confesses, “My baby loves me, I'm so angry / Anger makes me a modern girl / Took my money, I couldn't buy nothin’ / I'm sick of this brave new world”. It’s contradictions act as the most delicate summation of the album.
Opening with the acerbic ‘The Fox,’ the “There’s no looking back” line now feels like the album's idée fixe. Brownstein said of the record: “I think The Woods turned out exactly how we wanted it, but the process was very painful.” However painful it may have been at times, Sleater-Kinney have always had the courage of their convictions and then some, and the resulting work fulfilled every uncompromising tenet they have put on themselves. Ten years on it has lost none of its power; the structures are thrillingly all over the place, its teeth are as sharp as the day it came out, but it also has humanity and a huge heart. And dare I say it, The Woods is wildly entertaining. The band have spoken of feeling compelled to return as no one had picked up where they left off, and given the turbulent political times we live in, their presence as a female band unafraid to broach often uncomfortable political issues intelligently, and deliver music with unshakable integrity, is not only refreshing, it’s vital. The Woods would have remained an exceptional way to sign off, but thankfully it wasn’t the last we heard of them. We need Sleater-Kinney now more than ever.
“So you want to be entertained? / Please look away, don't look away / We're not here 'cause we want to entertain / Go away, don't go away” - 'Entertain'