Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding the production and recording of Sleater-Kinney’s new album, Little Rope. Both Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein had already finished sketching out the album and were beginning the new recordings when the news of Brownstein’s mother’s and stepfather’s tragic deaths came to them via a phone call from the U.S. Embassy in Italy to Tucker after they were initially unable to reach Brownstein directly. Despite being “dragged into a hellscape of grief,” Brownstein and Tucker threw themselves into the production of the album with Brownstein, especially, turning to her guitar work on the new songs as a kind of “praying” through the emotions that had overtaken her. The result is not exactly what you’d expect given the amount of sadness and pain Brownstein and Tucker had to contend with as they finished the record. Grief surrounds Little Rope like a specter, but the requisite despair that comes along with it is nowhere to be found.
Although Sleater-Kinney’s sound has never been strictly punk, their earlier albums were more directly imbued with the styles and attitudes of the growing riot grrrl movement of the Pacific Northwest. As they grew and priorities shifted, their sound became more distinct, often incorporating elements of post punk, new wave, and classic rock. They’ve never been afraid to confront the most vulnerable aspects of their lives on their records, with songs like those on their 1997 release Dig Me Out chronicling the end of Tucker and Brownstein’s romantic relationship. But they’ve also never shied away from the national and global politics that have come to define various eras of their lives as much of the work on their 2002 release One Beat proves. Little Rope is their fourth release since the end of their 10-year hiatus in 2015 and their second since long-time drummer Janet Weiss parted ways with the band, but it is easily their strongest and most consistent record since the hiatus-breaking No Cities to Love. Similar to that album, Little Rope provides an accessible, evocative balance of the personal and political and employs a variety of styles and influences that diverge dramatically from song to song and create such a level and coherent assemblage of their capabilities as individuals and as a duo.
Little Rope is no doubt grounded in Tucker’s now legendary vibrato and in the dueling yet synergetic guitar compositions she and Brownstein share. The album’s opener, “Hell,” takes on the reality of living in a world where violence has become our most common way of relating to one another. It begins slowly with the vocals taking the lead, “Hell is desperation / And a young man with a gun,” and then explodes into the chorus, “You ask / ‘Why?’ like there’s no tomorrow.” Tucker’s voice takes the song into the stratosphere forcing us to face what she’s singing about in the same way she and Brownstein have.
“Six Mistakes,” one of my favorite tracks on the album, takes some of the doom from the chorus of “Hell” and brings in more distortion and fuzz to create a booming rock song and the image of person trying to decipher their role in an unreciprocated relationship, “Who do you love for? / Who do you want to see? / I’m hanging on but I can’t feel your love for me.” Above the prodding drums and pleading guitar melodies of “Hunt You Down,” another favorite, Tucker’s quaking vibrato turns into a whine, “I’ve been down so long / I pay rent to the floor,” before Brownstein joins her to blast into the prodigious exclamation of the chorus, “The thing you fear the most will / Hunt you down.” Together, they take what feels like a commonly accepted idea and turn it into an incantation that begs us to remember all of the truth encapsulated within it despite its prevalence.
The punchy drums and playful guitar melodies of “Don’t Feel Right” might fool some into thinking it’s less vulnerable than some of the other tracks on the album, but the lyrics — “Don’t hang around / I’m a real letdown” — tell another story. They highlight the difficulties of navigating the realities of a life “warped from grief.” Similarly, the light pop-rock sensibilities and the exaggerated syllable pronunciations of “Needlessly Wild” serve as a shield for some of the album’s most candid lyrics, “I’m uselessly sullen / I pushed up my bedtime / I’ll set with the sun.” “Dress Yourself” — an arresting meditation on the way depression often incapacitates us and holds us hostage — takes these ideas even further. Sometimes, it’s hard for the speaker in these songs to even be around themself. All three tracks play kind of tongue-in-cheek about how it feels to have to grapple with sadness on a daily basis but also prove that even that impossible task can be overcome.
“Say It Like You Mean It” has the potential to be Sleater-Kinney’s most mainstream song, but the desire so clearly present in Tucker’s singing and the easy groove of the composition give way to lyrics that are much more prescient and poignant than most pop hits. “Say it like you mean it / I need to hear it before you go” feels like a continuation of the iconic chorus of 1997’s “One More Hour” where Tucker wails, “If you could talk, what would you say?” but with a demand instead of a question this time. Whoever they’re talking to this time around — and the lyrics of “Say It Like You Mean It” point to a number of possibilities — they have no patience or capacity to wait for a response. The album’s defiant single, “Untidy Creature,” bursts open with tremendous guitar riff and the crashing symbols of the drum kit to give us a emancipatory narrative of breaking free from the confines built around us by our society at large: “Looking at me like a problem to solve / Like an untidy creature that you can’t push around / You built a cage but your measurement’s wrong / ‘Cause I’ll find a way and I’ll pick your lock.”
It’s a powerful closer to an album dealing with the materiality of not just grieving but also of existing in a world that makes us take on grief as a daily practice whether it’s “personal” or not. At the midpoint of the album, “Small Finds,” one of the tracks most reminiscent of Sleater-Kinney’s earlier work, bounces open with a combination of their signature punk compositional style and their newer experimentations with other genres. On the bridge, the guitars and drums go downbeat, and Tucker groans, “Little wins pull me in / Little wins fill me up / I vibe on the small finds, babe / They tell me I’m good enough.” It’s the perfect vehicle to remind us of what they’re doing with this album. To be alive, to be human in the world we’ve created, means we’re going to keep experiencing the devastation of loss. We can choose to get lost in it, let the grief swallow us whole and lament in the supposed inevitability of that, or we can look around for a little rope and let it carry us forward. Just as Sleater-Kinney has with this album, we can make the choice to hang on.