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Grief looms over Sleater-Kinney's ‘Little Rope’

Sleater-Kinney's album is about finding a light in the darkness, about coping with loss through friendship, communion and sheer stubbornness

Carrie Brownstein. Image courtesy Wikipedia
Carrie Brownstein. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Late in 2022, Carrie Brownstein—one half of the influential feminist rock act Sleater-Kinney—was on the way to the studio when she got a call from long-time friend and bandmate Corin Tucker. Someone at the US embassy in Italy was trying to get in touch with Brownstein. Suspecting that it was a prank, she passed the details on to her sister and headed into a recording session for Little Rope, Sleater-Kinney’s 11th studio album. When she checked her phone a couple of hours later though, she received terrible news. Her mother and stepfather, vacationing in Italy, had died in a car crash. Devastated, Brownstein threw herself into the album’s recording, finding refuge in the comfortable rituals of playing music. “Guitar was a way of giving myself shape again,” she said in an interview to NPR. “And to create songs with it was a way of giving form to something that felt very nebulous.”

Brownstein’s grief is palpable on Little Rope, infusing the album’s 10 tracks about societal despair, depression and existential burnout with a sense of deeply personal pathos. You can hear it in her voice on the dance-punk anthem Hunt You Down, as she sings of things left unsaid, feelings left unexpressed: “I forgive you, I wish I’d told you so.” It’s there in the fuzzed-out, disintegrating guitars of Six Mistakes, Tucker’s stripped-back vibrato emerging from dark clouds of detuned loss. It anchors the anxiety-edged mania of Don’t Feel Right, with its lyrics about driving through the night to “drown the pain out”.

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But, even as grief looms over every taut guitar hook and full-throated bellow on Little Rope, the album never wallows in autobiographical sadness. Its protagonists might be maladjusted depressives, reeling from loss and heartbreak, struggling to function under the stresses and tensions of contemporary society, but they are also resilient. As its name suggests (“can you gimme a little rope?” goes the line on Small Finds), Little Rope is an album about finding a light in the darkness, about coping with loss through friendship, communion and—if all else fails—sheer hard-headed stubbornness.

In that sense, Little Rope is a quintessentially Sleater-Kinney record. Ever since Brownstein and Tucker came together to form the band in 1994—at the peak of the feminist-punk riot grrrl movement, when alternative music seemed set to change the world forever—their music has focused on the idea of enduring against the odds, misfits shaking their fists at a personal and political hellscape in angry defiance. Over the second half of the 1990s, they released a string of aggressive, in-your-face punk albums steeped in fervent, third-wave feminism (music critic Ann Powers compared them to Simone de Beauvoir). In the first half of the 2000s, they matured into one of America’s most vital alternative rock bands, putting out hugely influential records such as the post-9/11 protest album One Beat. The band went on a hiatus after 2005’s The Woods, but their music continued to resonate, its influence apparent in acts like Japanese Breakfast and St. Vincent.

The band’s second run—they reunited in 2015—has had more mixed results. That year’s No Cities To Love was a triumphant return to form, but it also precipitated the exit of long-time drummer Janet Weiss, whose intricate drum attack was the foundation for the group’s most propulsive, pugnacious throwdowns. Their next album, 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold (produced by St. Vincent) floundered in avant-pop experimentalism, lacking the urgency they were known for. 2021’s self-produced Path Of Wellness was a middling over-correction, full of painfully sincere and technically accomplished rock-by-numbers cuts. On Little Rope, the band—now accompanied by touring drummer Angie Boylan—find a new balance that works, somewhere in between the frenzied angst of their earlier work and the atmospheric pop they seem to be going for more recently.

Opener Hell begins with a single, ominous guitar line, before it explodes into a squall of crunchy, overdriven guitars. “Hell is desperation/ And a young man with a gun,” sings Tucker, painting a grim portrait of parenthood in an America drowning in mass-shootings and political violence. Six Mistakes is similarly spine-chilling, its swirling atonal guitars mimicking the mental chaos of its stalker-ish, reality-questioning protagonist. The angular post-punk of Small Finds drips with spunky menace, as Tucker sings of finding joy and hope in the “little wins”. The swaggering Needlessly Wild channels peak-era Mark E. Smith, a celebration of party-killing as liberation praxis. “I’m aggressively fun,” the song goes. “A lecture for one.”

Elsewhere, the group indulge their newfound pop sensibility, even as the lyrics continue to mine darker territory. Dress Yourself builds up like a romantic ballad, as Brownstein depicts the everyday reality of depression: “Get up, girl, and dress yourself/ In clothes you love for a world you hate.” Say It Like You Mean It is a breakup song in classic—if uninspired—singalong mode, elevated by the power of Tucker’s incredible voice.

Brownstein and Tucker don’t always get the balance right—as on the anti-book-burning cut Crusader, with its generic dance beats and heard-it-before melodies—and Little Rope isn’t consistently as red-hot brilliant as the group’s best records. Weiss’s presence is sorely missed, with Boylan rarely straying from stoic four-by-four rhythms. Older fans of the group will also miss some of the fire-and-brimstone fury of pre-hiatus Sleater-Kinney. But Brownstein and Tucker are no longer young 20-somethings, heady with the possibilities of youthful revolution. They are older, battered by the vagaries of life and existence, their souls covered with decades of emotional scars and scabs. They no longer need to shout their defiance at the top of their voice. Just the fact of their continued existence stands as a rebuke to the forces that would keep them down.

Which is not to say that they don’t still have it. When they let some of that old resistance bubble up, on album closer Untidy Creatures, it still has the power to rattle windows and make the ground shake. The song is a rebuke to the recent overturning of Roe vs Wade, the landmark 1973 case that established abortion as a constitutional right. One of the formative political experiences of the riot grrrl movement was the 1991 Anita Hill affair, when then US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual assault. Thirty-two years later, Thomas was among the judges who voted to overturn Roe vs Wade. The wrecking ball riffs and ferociously-fuzzy synths of Untidy Creatures signal that even as they find themselves re-fighting the same battles decade after decade, Sleater-Kinney—and so many other women like them—are not in the mood to give up. “You built a cage, but your measurement’s wrong,” goes the song’s bridge. “Cause I’ll find a way and I’ll pick your lock.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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