It’s been three years since the release of Sleater-Kinney’s last album, Path of Wellness, which was perceived s a significantly restrained, even breezy effort in their three-decade-long career. It boasted a lot of the swagger, if not the urgency, of rock n’ roll, and though it wasn’t nearly as polarizing as 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold, it left something to be desired. Following the departure of drummer Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker seemed more content to coast on a more familiar and clean–cut sound, struggling to either cut through or underscore the dread that pervaded the album’s pleasant arrangements. The opening of Little Rope, the band’s follow–up, almost points in a similar direction, beginning on a note of cool nihilism that promises no explosions: “Hell don’t have no worries/ Hell don’t have no past/ Hell is just a signpost when you take a certain path.” Then Tucker’s voice, along with the whole song, erupts with the fury of watching a friend drown in despair: “You ask why like there’s no tomorrow.” It’s a much-needed jolt, as raw and visceral as you’d want a record like this to be.
Sleater-Kinney haven’t switched up their approach too much, still anchoring in steady grooves and catchy hooks, but ‘Hell’ hints at a brokenness that will catch anyone who’d filed their past couple of records as “sleek” off guard. It’s the kind of emotion musicians might turn away from but can never fake, and Sleater-Kinney don’t try. When the album was announced, they were open about how the songs were inspired by grief: halfway through the making of the album, Brownstein received the news that her mother and stepfather had died in a car crash. Given the circumstances, Little Rope doesn’t sound dark so much as on the edge of riotously spinning out of control, which leads to some of the band’s most invigorated performances in a while: “warped from grief,” goes a line on ‘Don’t Feel Right’, not wrapped in or grappling with it. It’s a defiantly upbeat song about making plans for when you’re out of a depression that naturally sucks you further into it, the key change at the end adding real irony to the self-immolating chorus of “Don’t come around, I’m a real let down.”
The album is at its best when it feels both earnest and eager to reflect not just the vulnerability underlying the lyrics, but the sort of relentless drive that can come from having your whole worldview upended. It doesn’t always come across. On ‘Dress Yourself’, Brownstein pleads to be given “the madness” and “a new word for the old pain inside of me,” but John Congleton, who the band enlisted after self–producing Path of Wellness, suddenly adds booming drums that stifle the yearning. (The woozing synth on ‘Hunt You Down’ is another odd, albeit more subtle, production choice that distracts from the real horror from the song.) By the time we get to ‘Dress Yourself’, though, we’ve already heard delicious glimpses of that state of frenzy, whether in ‘Needlessly Wild’, where Brownstein exalts in bending the word “wild,” or ‘Six Mistakes’, which seems to be fuelled by the paranoia of stalking someone on the grounds of suspected infidelity (or worse).
Little Rope is less compelling when it steps away from those fiery emotions, but only because it tends to undersell the other side of them – resilience, tenderness, love. The early single ‘Say It Like You Mean It’ works better in concept than it does in execution, aching for a show of sincerity in the midst of a painful goodbye but flattening itself out in the process. Tucker’s vocal performance on the song is dynamic, but not like it is on the closer ‘Untidy Creature’, whose lurching grandiosity feels cathartic rather than imposing, Brownstein’s cleanly melodic guitar flourishes peeking out, and then powering through, the fuzz. “There’s too much here that’s unspoken/ And there’s no tomorrow in sight/ Could you love me if I was broken/ There’s no going back tonight,” Tucker sings. She finds no new word for that old pain but manages to wail it into existence regardless, if only to be reminded she isn’t standing against it alone.