Sleater-Kinney – One Beat

“Once. Then no more… ever. But to have been as one, through but the once, with this world, never can be undone.

“So we persevere, attempting to resolve it and contain it in our grasp, in overfilled eyes and within our voiceless heart; attempting to be it, as a gift for whom? For ourselves, forever!”

–Rilke, Ninth Duino Elegy

Sleater-Kinney one time, one beat. And we are never to return. And rock is never to return. Do they want us to march in time, or do we want to move in time? How to distinguish their rock from ours, the emotions we make and the emotions we are given? One beat because any more would be repetition, “and if we let them lead us blindly/the past becomes the future once again“. One beat, one time because we’re e-e-exploding! Because eternity is for losers and “nothing says forever like our very own grave“.

One beat, one time because the album is all openings and endings with no time for in between, no time for the grotto Corin begs to be rescued to while hanging on the verge of suicide in “Light-Rail Coyote”. The riffs are more circular than ever, long melodic swoops interrupted by sharp drum rolls only to repeat — louder, lengthier — “praying that this ride will end/but when it does you go on again“. Self-obsessesed and self-mocking, a torrent of production put-downs and bombast while beneath the love of a parent for a child lingers, afraid to fully express itself. Playing to a moral code which spurns success, spurns the media, begs to be hated, to be controversial, to matter. Polyvoiced, urgent, problematized. Funky as all get-up. Eminem? Sleater-Kinney. One Beat.

One time and never again because Sleater-Kinney thrive on marginality, on out-of-step lockstep on crowds that don’t dance but writhe. No accident that “Dance Song ’97” remains their most terrifying to date. No scalpels and femi-franken grotesqueries and junior Kreugerisms but pure desire caught by the rhythmic prison of the dancefloor. They jerked around with fame on their last album (All Hands On The Bad One), the ironies of playing “the girl band” in an era when people dig that sort of thing. After they turned down gate-storming a few times they found that comfortable niche just outside TRL but still in spitting distance of GQ. No surprise that their rootless discontent has now sent them to the barricades again, trying once more to clear that place they don’t want in the world where they refuse to belong.

“One Beat” is the single Lydia Lunch was too chickenshit to write with Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, forgoing simple nihilism in favor of the narcissistic hunger of will to power. “Is real change an illusion/could I turn this place all upside down/And shake you and your fossils out/If I’m to run the future/You’ve got to let the old world go.” The guitars twitch and lurch while Corin gasps high clipped syllables and Janet pounds out broken funk on her toms channeling the Au Pairs’ Jamaica by way of Stax sound that scenesters keep looking for in all the wrong places. Like Tommy always said, “Put in your earplugs/put on your eyeshades/you know where to put the cork.

One time because “Far Away” is as solidly egotistical a track about 9/11 as can be written, more mixed up and casual than Eminem’s “Square Dance”, telling us in its chorus that “I fall down/no other direction for this to go/so we fall down” while memorializing the workers who rushed in. “Oh!” answers it with the only moments of stability on the album, settling into the tinkertoy nursery-rhyme melodies of All Hands On The Bad One, closing “They don’t know it but I’m here to stay.” The no-new-wavisms reach their turbulent peak on “Combat Rock” which minces around the spirit of a protest song in shrill pantomime invocations well executed enough to make me feel complicit in things which I had nothing to do with. Corin sings something about oil and machines but mainly we get the sense she’s put out because she’s told she can’t dissent. That the new world order provides opportunities for rebellion for the hell of it on a new and broader plane, and she’s damn pissed off she’s gonna have to be the one to write a song about it. Because in the final analysis the political is political and the truth of the matter is the personal should stay the heck out of it. But don’t tell that to Corin, who’ll just sing louder.

One time because that’s what Corin chants on “Step Aside”, the last track they wrote for the album, more naively and gently blackface than Eminem. Three white rock and roll girls with the nerve to pass off a Motown song where “the baby’s fed and the tunes are pure“? A feel good tune for getting nowhere fast. Hard to imagine this music soundtracking a revolution, but it seems just perfect for a historical pageant about one. A giant globe swings onto stage, Sleater-Kinney shimmying on top (not shucking and jiving, but only because they’re not quite sure what that means). Corin howls “TO THE BEAT” as Carrie’s guitar surges in a wall of sound, drowning the absurdity of spectacle in open-ended meaning. Something goes askew backstage and the cables start to resonate sending the sphere careening as the band struggles to keep their balance. On top of a world they still can’t master. But then, what’s more rock and roll than failure?

  written by Sterling Clover, September 2002