I believe I officially have to rethink my standing policy of greeting all band reunions with unyielding skepticism that extends to the point of preemptive dismissal. I’ll admit it’s been outdated for a while, a vestige of the time when I and many of my fellow college radio-reared music snob cohorts measured artistic credibility beginning with a consideration of distance from anything that could be termed selling out. Decisions seemingly made on the basis of readily available dollars rather than following some fictitious muse were commonly met with peak animosity, and getting the band back together was one of those decisions that always seemed to qualify. Though I’ve encountered plenty of evidence in recent years that an unexpected return engagement can be a fine thing, I’ve largely stuck to my old notion, openly grousing about listeners who had no interest whatsoever in twenty years worth of Frank Black music suddenly getting excited because “Pixies” is stamped on the front cover (okay, so I stand by that one). Leave it to Sleater-Kinney to turn me around for good.
No Cities to Love is Sleater-Kinney’s eighth album overall and their first in almost exactly ten years, following a layoff that was termed an “indefinite hiatus.” By all expectations, the band’s exceptional 2005 album, The Woods, was their last, a suspicion that appeared to be verified with the announcement of Start Together, a box set released last fall that included all the band’s full-length releases. The dates printed on the cover — 1994 – 2006 — looked like the data carved onto a gravestone. Instead, amongst the albums was a cryptically labelled single with a previously unheard song, “Bury Our Friends.” It was unmistakably Sleater-Kinney: pummeling, intense, tuneful, pointed, and exhilarating. It was also, as it turned out, the opening salvo in what can fairly (though perhaps prematurely and a touch too hopefully) be termed Phase Two of the band. It was a delectable taste of all that No Cities to Love offers.
The album is strong enough to make it tempting to assert Sleater-Kinney hasn’t missed a step. That assessment, however, sells them short. Clearly as it’s a record that could have only come from all three of them — not from the Corin Tucker Band, nor Wild Flag, onetime musical home to Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss — it is also one that carries with it the time apart as assuredly as the blessed kismet of the trio’s collaboration. For one thing, the album that keeps circling back to the concepts of togetherness and revived bonds. Backed by cascading guitar lines and popping drum beats, “Surface Envy” declares, “I feel so much stronger,/ now that you’re here/ We’ve got so much to do,/ let me make that clear” before the chorus drives it home, punching harmonies insisting, “We win, we lose, only together do we break the rules/ We win, we lose, only together so we make the rules.” Metropolises might be unlovable on the title cut, with its irresistible, singalong hook, but the song eventually concludes “it’s the people we love.” And then there’s the track that revealed the sneaky reunion, the words “We’re wild and weary/ But we won’t give in” resonating fiercely, as if in defiance of their own self-imposed demise.
Start to finish, the album is a powerhouse, writhing to life with the probing rhythms of “Price Tag” and moving with barely a breath all to way to the closing track, “Fade,” which shifts adventurously enough during its three-and-a-half minutes that it almost feels like Sleater-Kinney is trying to squeeze in a few more sonic ideas before the tyranny of the runout groove closes in. I could keep going, but what’s the point in hunting out different overjoyed superlatives for every last track? No Cities to Love is a great album, and that would be the case had it arrived after a break of twenty to thirty years or mere minutes after the prior release. Context matters, to be sure. But when music is this fantastic, it’s also largely incidental.