Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Although at the time it seemed like an unaccountable tragedy, in hindsight it makes a grim kind of sense that The Woods was Sleater-Kinney's final album. (Although they've been careful to specify that they went on "indefinite hiatus" instead of merely just splitting - purposefully leaving open future possibilities - for all intents and purposes they're broken up.) It sounds like a final album: it's got that air of finality to it that you associate with albums like Terror Twilight, Abbey Road and Strangeways Here We Come. These people knew, even if maybe they hadn't articulated it in as many words, that this was probably the last time they were going to be able to pull this off. Last chance to put it all together, last opportunity to say what they needed to say, what could only be said with the folks in that room. There aren't going to be any encores so you might as well blow the P.A.

The album debuted to uniformly good if occasionally baffled reviews: great album, they seemed to say, even if it doesn't really sound that much like Sleater-Kinney. But that was part of the problem. Sleater-Kinney 2.0 (i.e., the version everybody knows, with Janet Weiss on drums to replace original drummer Laura Macfarlane) had released four universally acclaimed, universally beloved albums of tight power-pop-punk, getting regular write-ups in unlikely venues like TIME magazine and generally receiving acknowledgment from all corners that they were one of, if not the best, rock combos in the world. But these albums, if all great, were at the same time slightly frustrating. And here's where I take some shit from S-K's hardcore fans: if you're honest, you'll admit that by 2002's One Beat they had fallen into a rut, dare I say, a formula. There's one thing to be said for consistency, another entirely for repetition, and the slight changes to the formula with every new album had started to seem cosmetic. They were just so good at what they did that it was easy to lose sight of the fact that they were beginning to spin their wheels. You can demur if you choose, point out that One Beat was a harder, more melancholy album; that All Hands on the Bad One was frothier, more "classic" pop; that The Hot Rock was more "indie" less "riot grrrl", etc. But these arguments are academic.

They were smart enough to know that they needed to change or die. But there was also something else in the mix besides the understandable desire to mix things up - a desire that, by itself, could have easily been satisfied with the facile introduction of, say, a synthesizer player or perhaps an acoustic tour. Listening to The Woods it's immediately obvious what that extra element is: they're pissed. But "pissed" is too small a word. They'd been pissed before - One Beat is a pissed album. The mood isn't just angry, it's dark, it's depressed. The light touch that had maintained the group's overriding tuneful alacrity despite the occasionally mordant or political subject matter was gone. In its place was a single-minded, terrible purposefulness that verged on monomania. All the little pieces of quirky cuteness that defined their earlier albums had been obliterated: no "Rock and Roll Fun", no "Little Babies", no "Milkshake and Honey". This isn't a fun album by any stretch of the imagination. The emotional palette has been constrained, and in light of this it's easy to see why the album was received with some ambivalence by their fanbase: again, it's not a fun album. It's an album that consists of ten songs on the general theme of failure, and all the emotions that accompany it on the K├╝bler-Ross spectrum - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Fuck Korn's Saturday-morning banality, or Slipknot's cartoonish buffoonery: this is hard rock distilled from real, honest-to-God anguish, the sound of three women collectively raging against the dying of the light. I can't go on, I will go on.

So it's a hard album to get one's head around. It's not an album to put on for tooling around the house. Otherwise, you might have trouble seeing past what most critics fixated on as a Led Zepplin pastiche, and might generally think the album was an uncharacteristic, one-note downer, respectfully filing it on the shelf but rarely taking it down in favor of hearing All Hands on the Bad One again. Given my history, it might seem odd that such a resolutely old-fashioned slab of hard-rock might rate so highly on my personal list. This isn't some genre-defining milestone or an example of any kind of post-millennial avant garde, or even, heh, pseudo avant garde. Sonically, this is the simplest album represented. But moreso than any other album on this list, and I'd wager, more than any other album of the last decade, The Woods is simply harrowing.

It feels sorrowful in such a clear, unambiguous and true fashion that it leaves the listener feeling as if he or she has been well and truly gutted. It's a rare feeling, such genuine anguish. There's a little bit of it on Nirvana's In Utero - especially some of the acoustic demos released on the box set (I'm not a big Nirvana fan but I generally regard Cobain's solo, unaccompanied demos to be superior to the studio versions of his songs). The Manic Street Preachers' Holy Bible comes close, particularly on tracks like "Die in the Summertime" and "4st 7lb". (Tellingly, these albums were both recorded right before the songwriters' suicides.) But it's hard to find ready comparison because, unlike most examples of dark pop music, there's nothing theatrical or histrionic on display here. It's real, it's earned, it's heartbreaking.
I booked my ticked
Packed my bags
Flight is leaving
Our time has passed.
I'm tired of knocking on a door that just won't budge,
Locked out of the engine, It's a wheel that you have spun
But who's to say I don't have wings?
The problem is that the "wings" which present the only glimpse of hope at the end of "Steep Air" fly for the briefest of durations - that is, the four seconds it takes to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in "Jumpers".

More to come.

Best Music of the "Aughts"
10.The Field - From Here We Go Sublime
9.Spoon - Gimme Fiction
8.The New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
7.Girl Talk - Night Ripper
6.The Roots - Phrenology
5.LCD Soundsystem - Sounds of Silver
4.The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
3.Radiohead - Kid A
2.Sleater-Kinney - The Woods
1.Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 1, 2

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