It’s tough bearing the burden of other people’s dreams: Sometimes the three women of Sleater-Kinney must feel that all the expectations and desires the group has to shoulder have taken on a life of their own, independent of the music itself. When they released The Hot Rock last year, it was greeted with the same kind of ecstatic reviews as Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out (“their third perfect album in a row” and similar genuflections), automatically rubber-stamped as a masterpiece like it was unthinkable now they could make anything less. But it didn’t have the riveting velocity of those records, instead enacting an uneasy tug o’ war between abstraction and immediate gratification, with even the harshest, most unrepentant parts having a vaguely watered-down, wet-blanket quality. On The Hot Rock, it sounded like all the Great Whitegirl Band hopes that have been pinned on Sleater-Kinney—the drama of liberation, significance, and unfettered emotion we crave because it’s such an endangered species—weighed on their voices and minds, as if they were caught between living up to what they had come to represent and shedding those roles for reinvented skins.
With All Hands on the Bad One, their latest bundle of wild gifts and contradictions, every trace of hesitation is gone: “Go ahead and flunk my ass,” Corin Tucker dares skeptics and fanatics alike, savoring each word with a kickboxer’s taunting grin. (She can find more tactile delight in a handful of raw syllables than most singers discover in a whole career.) Being critical darlings (however well-deserved ones) has always given Sleater-Kinney the air of straight-A-student punks, the endearing kind who’ve always read the right textbooks and never failed to strike the proper empower-chords. In “Youth Decay, ” “All Hands on the Bad One” (“We would be no better”), and the alternately scathing/uproarious “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun,” they wrestle with the lust for approval, and break free from it. Especially in “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun,” they jump into the backlash against their own virtuous image feet-first, bouncing different points of view off each other like blindfolded gropers in a mosh pit. Playing hedonism against upright integrity (“Like a piece of art/That no one can touch”), they catch the ridiculous limitations of both, but mainly capture the beguiling giddiness of temptation—the inadmissible wish to get dirty, fuck the consequences, and be what we are most afraid of.
There are still a ton of good intentions strewn across the darkly euphoric surfaces of All Hands on the Bad One—songs about eating disorders and women’s exploitation, manifestos for reclaiming pop music from prefab toyboys and the engineers of social consent—but while the words can look didactic on a lyric sheet, the singing never ossifies into “messages,” moral posturing, or one-way metaphors. Tucker and Carrie Brownstein own their voices so fully they can afford to lose themselves in any given moment: They sound their freest when singing about the absence of freedom, looking into the eyes of the enemy within. When they overlap each other on the glowering “#1 Must Have” or the even rougher trade of “Male Model,” the crosstalk traffic between Tucker’s brooding ardor and Brownstein’s girly irony has a tension that slices right through the song’s protest conventions, diving into a word or a line like a pair of scavengers prowling for sunken treasure. The way Brownstein ominously coos “No more” in the former or the blissfully obscene pronunciation Tucker gives “forked tongue” in “Youth Decay” opens up the material like a freshly undressed wound: the eternal, internalized struggle to find a home in your own flesh even as the world tirelessly works to make you feel like a perfect stranger to yourself.
But on an album whose most emblematic song, “Milkshake n’ Honey” (with Corin Tucker turning herself into a sex predator/kitten combination of Serge Gainsbourg and An American Barbarella in Paris), happily rhymes “Pick up the phone” with “Meet me at the Sorbonne,” desire has the first and last word. There’s a sense of playful trashiness here that carries over from Tucker’s side project Cadallaca, the 69-teardrop garage outfit whose new four-song EP, Out West, is as much a throwback to Johnny Guitar as it is to the Seeds or the Mysterians—except on Out West, Sarah Dougher’s organ lays siege to the saloon. With Cadallaca, the melodrama, despair, and longing are all bigger than life and cheaper than a hard-boiled paperback (“God gave up on me that day!”—not a bad send-up of PJ Harvey’s spaghetti-gothic heroines, either). No part of All Hands on the Bad One is quite so blatant or magnificently corny, but there’s the same willingness to embrace abandon and risk looking absurd or foolish in the process. It takes as much nerve to make the hilariously pornographic noises that fade out “Milkshake n’ Honey” as it does to contemplate the horror and disgust of “Was It a Lie?,” where Tucker tries to comprehend the surveillance-cam voyeurism that makes the nightly news into a snuff-film factory and an anonymous woman’s death into tabloid-TV fodder. The spectrum of fun and experience here is much greater than before, but the album seems no less brutally intimate for that: Sleater-Kinney have made their Beauty and the Beat, even if its pretty uncapped teeth still retain the bite of Liliput’s “Split.” Danger, glamour, sex, and dread—what sticky fingers these conspirators of pleasure have. Yet All Hands on the Bad One doesn’t settle for the Go-Gos’ demure ministrations; it means to work the whole loving fist all the way up your tight little mind.
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