For those of you keeping score, the title track of Sleater-Kinney’s new album One Beat is about finding alternative sources of energy. “Far Away” is a remembrance of September 11, and “Combat Rock” is — you guessed it — an indictment of US foreign policy. Elsewhere, the lyrics speak of motherhood, feminine empowerment, and practical bitterness in at least a dozen different forms.
Now that you know those things, forget them. They don’t really matter. Sleater-Kinney, for all the ideological weight that is constantly placed on them, is not a political band. Never on any of their albums is there a hint of proseletyzing, never do they interrupt the flow of rock to deliver an impassioned speech, Bono-style. Sleater-Kinney gains steam not from their ideas, but in the spaces between staccato drumbeats and precise shudderings of guitar noise; and the pressure builds, and the volume increases, and at the top of the whole dangerous thing is a release valve called Corin Tucker’s voice, without which the band might explode. The subject matter of the songs is eclipsed by the execution again and again, taking specific grievances and distilling them into their basest emotional components — anger, passion, love, and rhythm. All great rock and roll is driven by something: the need to voice ideas, the need to be angry, or to be musicianly, or stupid, or what have you, but all great rock and roll smashes its inspirations with the power of its sound, and in the end leaves nothing but itself. Sleater-Kinney plays great rock and roll. They are the most awe-inspiring rock band since The Clash.
“One Beat” kicks off the album with a drumbeat that doesn’t make musical sense until a rhythm guitar joins it a few bars later, and then the lead guitar comes in to offer tinny, slight punctuation to the already bare-bones captivating sound, and then enter Tucker. Her voice is a force of nature, balanced between a warble and a shreik, a heavily stylized wail of what could be either anguish or elation. “I’m a bubble in a sound wave,” she proclaims, “a push for sonic energy.” The song is anti-oil, as I said, and against the American attitude toward energy, but in these first lines, she seems to be suggesting that she herself could power the world with her voice, that her “sonic energy” could be a solution to our problems. We almost believe her. “If I’m to run the future,” she sings, again establishing herself as the center of whatever she’s proposing, “You have to let the old world go.” Yes, indeed. Let the old world go, and embrace this band.
Elsewhere on One Beat the fire is skillfully controlled inside of melodies that sound more like pop than anything they’ve ever done. “Oh!” is the best Go-Go’s song you’ve never heard, and “Prisstina” opens with a bubblegum synth line. The latter song is about a girl saved by music — a timeless theme if ever there was one — but all over One Beat, Sleater-Kinney gleefully call into question exactly what kind of music they consider the saviour. It’s not just about punk. “Combat Rock” contains guitar lines that are downright Zeppelin-esque. “Step Aside” features a horn section. The band is branching out, exploring music in a way that suggests a band much younger than they are. They haven’t undergone a stunning transformation, mind you; One Beat is no London Calling, no giant leap forward into unknown territory. Mostly they play it safe, letting the new elements serve as reminders of just how focused they are, and how even after six albums, they are still addicted to the headlong rush that made them famous.
One Beat may or may not be their best album to date. It’s hard to tell. They’ve never delivered music as tightly coiled as “Far Away,” but the album lacks a song as feriocious and borderline-frightening as “Youth Decay” from All Hands On The Bad One. One Beat, while a complete and greatly admirable album, also sounds like a transition of sorts, a small step in God-knows-what direction. For now, though, it is more than enough that they remain one of the best bands ever to pick up guitars.