Release Date: January 20, 2015
Label: Sub Pop
The narrative we try to impose on reunion albums is bullshit. Anyone can be musically enlightened at any stage of their life, and just the same, a flash of genius can go stale whenever. We shouldn’t be so surprised that Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. still make the same kind of albums they always did, and maybe even that the label owners in Superchunk made their tightest and most tuneful work (Majesty Shredding, I Hate Music) after releasing sui generis albums by the Magnetic Fields, Spoon and Arcade Fire. You’re kidding yourself if you think the They Might Be Giants-style dad-jokes on the Dismemberment Plan’s Uncanney Valley weren’t always present, and Portishead and My Bloody Valentine exercised so much care in their sparse catalogs that there was no reason to believe Third or m b v wouldn’t challenge us anew. Every Sleater-Kinney album rules, and while they’re mortal like the rest of us, betting against No Cities to Love would’ve been like betting against Randy Newman to earn a nomination for Best Original Song.
Strangely, the flavor of its greatness most resembles Aphex Twin’s 2014 triumph Syro more than any of the above-named artists. No Cities to Love spends much of its running time reminding us not what Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss can do but what other configurations of players can’t. No other guitarist alive or dead could come up with the bizarre “No Anthems” riff that Stereogum‘s Tom Breihan described so wondrously I won’t even try to improve on it: “like robot cats being strangled.” The way “Price Tag” sets you up with a familiar run of notes only to slam them into the wall of a totally different key on the chorus — that’s not normal. It’s extraordinary.
And like Syro, it’s all instantly familiar and yet none of their previous work really sounds like No Cities to Love. Really, which? One Beat shares its thickened guitar attack but leaned bluesy, while none of The Woods’ psychedelic sprawl remained with the band post-Dave Fridmann. The melodies are their knottiest since The Hot Rock with none of the sweetness, and the half-hour length, their shortest since Call the Doctor, is about all it shares with the early stuff. There are no ballads, and while one could argue the pop merits of the anthemic “Bury Our Friends” or the title track, nothing’s as easy to hum as “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun.” Corin Tucker doesn’t really bust a lung at any point, which is great for her health and a slight letdown for anyone expecting another earth-melting meteorite like “The Fox.” Cities might be their most oblique, which is hilarious because it’s also their simplest. Dare one imply it’s their happiest, even if only the slashing “Gimme Love” hints at ideal domesticity, and “Hey Darling” shortly after claims that “fame’s mediocrity” is destroying it.
But as usual, Sleater-Kinney’s eighth album sounds queasy and wrong on first listen and fluent in rock languages that have barely been decoded yet by the third. As usual, the intelligent lyrics are almost never the reason you’re listening. They have their moments though: “We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in” is a nice enough kiss-off to complacency, and opening with the class analysis “Price Tag” is a nice rebuke to the expectations of a punk guitarist who wasn’t Emmy-nominated when her band last put one out. They even mock their own accrued cultural capital every time the “Exhume our idols” refrain comes round in “Bury Our Friends.” On their debut 20 years ago, the finest living rock band promised to show us “How to Play Dead.” We’re still waiting.