In most band’s catalogues, the “reunion album” is an afterthought at best, and usually an embarrassment. “Here’s the cash-in,” they say, after their fans are grown enough to support buying the new record, reunion tour tickets, and t-shirts for their unwilling kids. It’s cynical, sure, but hey, your Televisions and your Pavements and your Pixies, maybe they deserve a cash-in after their monumental influence and lack of commercial success.
Yet this was never the perception for Sleater-Kinney’s reunion. It’s hard to say exactly why — maybe it was that there was never any evidence of massive interpersonal drama, maybe that its three members all found happy employment outside of their band — but their reunion felt both inevitable and artistically valid from the start. The end product, No Cities to Love, validated that, immediately moving into contention for both album of the year and best album of the band’s exceptional career.
The heart of the album is its sixth track, “No Anthems.” To call the title ironic would be insufficient; it’s not merely a lie, it’s a lie so audacious as to render an honest title meaningless. “No Anthems” is an anthemic rock song, filled with driving rhythmic momentum and the sneer of a band (and singer) in full control of their powers.
But for a long-time Sleater-Kinney listener, “No Anthems” isn’t just a great rock song, it’s a defining moment in the career of a defining band. For as long as they’ve existed, S-K have struggled with fame, as a “next big thing” band that defiantly maintained their indie status. Across three of their most famous songs, spanning their career, they’ve engaged with fame — and with “No Anthems,” they’ve come to a conclusion.
The first famous Sleater-Kinney song was “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” from 1996’s Call the Doctor. The band is clear about their intentions here, citing both Joey Ramone and Thurston Moore, calling for “pictures of me on your bathroom door!” Singer Corin Tucker is demanding to be treated as an indie/punk icon, maybe not a full-on superstar, maybe at a personal level and not one of mass appeal, but still a woman kicking in the door of rock’n’roll celebrity. Ironically, despite being their best-known early song, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” was one of the most abrasive, with the reversed vocals in its chorus shoving away the idea of mass appeal.
“Entertain,” the group’s second iconic rock star anthem, came out nine years later in 2005 on the farewell album The Woods. The story was different with this song. This was a band that had ridden critical acclaim for nearly a decade, but its time was coming to an end. The Woods was not an album that suggested a band on the verge of acrimonious disintegration, but it did suggest a band that was tired of carrying the torch for rock’n’roll.
“So you want to be entertained/please look way/please go away” go the lyrics to “Entertain”, but they’re attached to a kick-ass rock song, with thudding drums and driving guitar solos. It’s as entertaining as Sleater-Kinney gets, even as it serves as an explanation for why the exhausted band would, shortly after, go on a nine-year hiatus.
“No Anthems” serves as a capstone, an acceptance to a career of uneasy stardom. It’s an adult acceptance of the ironies and paradoxes of what the band wanted when they were younger, and what they rejected. In “No Anthems,” Sleater-Kinney fully recognizes what they are. Janet Weiss’ drums drive everything forward, as always. Corin Tucker mixes the sultry and the powerful with lines like “I’m the pool boy fillin’ you with cool joy/In my melody.” And Carrie Brownstein, whose Portlandia has given her true breakout fame, drops a short, cheeky, astonishing guitar solo as the song crashes toward conclusion.
The fact that Sleater-Kinney’s 2015 reunion album was good was not surprising. That it was about the band aging into wisdom and adulthood was also unshocking, especially given the maturity of their solo albums. But that it did all that while still kicking as much ass as they did when they were young punks or exhausted stars? This is an astonishing achievement.