You’ve never heard the song before. It’s impossible to imagine it on the radio, because it’s so strong. Like Sex Pistols records, which are almost never played on the radio, it might destroy whatever came before or after.
The song is “Start Together”—the first cut on The Hot Rock, a new album by a band called Sleater-Kinney. It’s a song that can make you feel as alone as it makes you feel ready for any disaster, any threat: absolutely alone and absolutely ready. And “Start Together” is two things more. It is the culmination—so far—of the career of a band that has been the best in the country since it began, and of the work of a woman who has been the most interesting singer in pop music since 1991, when she first opened her mouth in public, in a two-woman drums-and-guitar punk band with the wonderful name of Heavens to Betsy.
Formed in Olympia, Washington, in 1994 as “a punk surf rock band” notable for a passionate remake of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” Sleater-Kinney is now on its fourth album. Unlike most punk artists, they’ve gotten more extreme as they’ve gone on, as if the sound they want is a dare against the very idea of limits. And though Sleater-Kinney has recorded only for very small labels, the band is not obscure; two years ago it was getting so many raves, the pop critic for Time felt it necessary to issue a demurrer. (Why? Just because.) The radio ought to be ready for them. It isn’t.
Sleater-Kinney consists of drummer Janet Weiss, thirty-three, and two guitarists, Carrie Brownstein, twenty-five, and Corin Tucker, twenty-seven. Both Brownstein and Tucker sing, or rather they argue—argue over their songs, over the claims different personae, perhaps different parts of the same person, might make on the songs. That’s the story dramatized on The Hot Rock—named for a 1972 Robert Redford-George Segal caper movie, one of those formula crime comedies you remember long after you’ve forgotten whatever won Oscars that year—but not as the record begins. Instead, “Start Together” burns out of the box with no introduction, no warning. A piercing, zigzag pattern of notes seems to drag you onto a moving train, into a story already in progress. You can’t catch up; the guitar is taking you in too many directions at once. It’s like being shoved into a room with screaming Francis Bacon paintings on each wall and being told you have to decide which one is you or die. And then there is Tucker’s voice.
Corin Tucker is a smallish, demure-looking woman. Her voice is enormous, with a natural swing—the sort of swing that neither Tina Turner nor Mick Jagger has ever had, the ability to take a note and ring it like a bell in a tower. You don’t know if it’s a sense of its own power or its own grace that has convinced this voice it can go through any door, once the voice has decided it will no longer wait. You hear that hesitation, that decision made somewhere back before the music began, in Tucker’s voice: It starts in an ache, in the desire of the will, which wants to bend the whole world, to escape its jailer, one person’s mere flesh, what Camille Paglia once called our “fascist bodies.” In “Start Together” the singer seems shocked by her own nerve, shocked that she is finally saying everything she means, that she’s free.
Tucker opens her mouth and sounds come out, not words. Words will appear as the song goes on—words of fear (“It’s changing–everything’s changing”), of pity and disdain (“Roll with the punches—roll out the door”)—but they don’t communicate with a fraction of the force of the expanding shouts, moans, and alarms Tucker sounds as the song goes over its first hill, as the band seems to double and in the background of the music a fuzztone sets off bombs. The language being spoken seems preverbal, a bet that back in the Pleistocene, when words came in, certain meanings, certain possibilities of expression, had to be left behind.
The singer has gone back to get them. Ooo wah, ooo wah, Tucker exhales, her tone a thing in itself, Kryptonite, glowing and hard, the sound making a huge arc you can almost see in the sky. Oooo, uh-feh, comes a cry, a surprised but implacable noise—a completed noise that is part fear, part disgust, with liberation discovered in the disgust and dissolving the fear. The performance is not only a physical discovery of freedom, made in the act of merely performing it; it is also an argument about freedom, an argument that it can be as terrifying for the actor as for the spectator.
This is the sort of music that makes you shake your head in awe that human beings can create anything so powerful. There were similar moments on the band’s earlier records Dig Me Out and Call the Doctor—which is exactly what you want to do in the middle of “Start Together”—moments when musicians find that their minds and bodies truly do cease to matter and the music is a thing apart, but such moments always returned to a certain familiar pop structure, a song you’d heard before. “Start Together” is a new song, demanding a bigger world, a world willing to start over. The thrill of such a demand, delivered whole, as a struggle won, is incalculable. That’s why it’s impossible to imagine the song on the radio. It seems as if it would erase every other disc on the playlist.
For the rest of The Hot Rock, with Weiss’s free and fluid pulses as something to fall back on, as floors and walls, Brownstein and Tucker quarrel like Redford’s and Segal’s bickering jewel thieves in the movie. After the stormed heavens of “Start Together,” this is ordinary life. Yet the drama here is less between two people than two sides of the same person, between the first person of any pop song and what in blues songs is called the second mind. This is not exactly the subconscious, or the conscience cross-examining the ego. There’s something more mocking, more ironic happening when the second mind makes itself heard. It’s as if the freedom discovered in “Start Together” is on trial. Yes, it’s beautiful; now let’s see you live it out. The second mind is not impressed; it’s a smirk in the face of passion. “I’m on to you,” Brownstein sings quietly on the title track as Tucker sucks so much air into her lungs that it doesn’t seem there’d be any left for anyone else.
The Hot Rock isn’t better than the earlier chapters in the book the band is writing, but it’s scarier. The prosaic battles and jokes of the previous albums are shifted onto the terrain of a psychological detective story, in which the hero breaks down and starts talking to herself on the street. But she’s no longer herself, she’s her selves—and so all across the album, different voices call out to you, try to charm you, try to convince you that one knows more than the other. This isn’t Mick and Keith or John and Paul; it’s more like Butch and Sundance. There are different notions of reality competing here, and thus if Tucker first appears as a force of nature, Brownstein as a performer stands in for the audience, her doubting Cassidy questioning what special rights a genius like Sundance truly has in a society in which each of us is supposedly worth as much as anybody else. So as Tucker drives the music, takes her band and her form—punk as such—to places neither has ever gone before and may never go again, Brownstein slows the music down. She’s the joke catching up to the one who never laughs, What’s your hurry versus Get out of my way, Parker Posey to Tucker’s Garbo, the nag to her oracle.
That opens up a paradox: It can make you think that the troublesome could be acceptable, that the notion that the radio could never hold the music with which this record began is much too simple. After all, anyone might have said the same thing the day before Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” or Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” went on the radio, and the radio played them day and night. Each time, something happened. Each time, the new song changed the songs around it, making almost everything else on the radio seem like a con everyone could now see through. For a day or a lifetime, those who were listening promised themselves they would never settle for what, the day before, had seemed like all there was.
Esquire, April 1, 1999