LOS ANGELES – In a video introducing Sleater-Kinney’s last album, 2021’s “Path of Wellness,” the duo of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker ask a psychic if they’ll ever record another album. She initially says yes, then changes her answer to “That’s really up in the air.”
At different moments in time, both answers could be viewed as correct. Sleater-Kinney is always writing, and their 10th studio album (their second since the departure of drummer Janet Weiss) is the result of many conflicting ideas.
“Little Rope”, which will be released Jan. 19, was written in a place of mourning and meditation — of personal loss and political unease.
In the fall of 2022, Brownstein’s mom and stepfather were killed in a car accident while vacationing in Italy. The American embassy, desperate to get a hold of Brownstein, called her listed emergency contact: her bandmate, Tucker.
In the months that followed, Brownstein found comfort playing guitar for hours on end. “I just needed to feel my fingers on something that was solid,” she says. “When people leave this Earth, you are aware of what is still here, and what is tactile versus what you’ll never touch again.”
First came “Untidy Creature,” the album’s closer. Brownstein wrote the opening riff about a year before the accident. “I had so many doubts about that song, which is a common theme in terms of the writing of this record, is sort of having a lot of questions about songs that became such certainties,” she says.
The album didn’t take shape until the middle of 2022. “Almost none of those songs made the record,” Tucker reiterates the reservations. Tracks felt overly vulnerable or emotional, in her view. “It took me a long time to realize, that’s what this record is: it’s really raw.” Fans may be surprised by the distinction – this is a band long celebrated for their directness, in musicality and otherwise.
Grammy-award winning producer John Congleton (known for his work with St. Vincent, Death Cab for Cutie, Regina Spektor) helped them get there.
The first single from “Little Rope” is “Hell,” the opening track. It’s restrained and then explosive, something resembling controlled chaos — two different melodies that battle one another and work in concert. The title is not pulled from some fearful religiosity, rather, hell as a state of being.
“Hell” wrestles with many injustices while “dropping us in a place and a time and a feeling and an emotion of helplessness and frustration,” Tucker says. “And revelation: of how much control we had conceded at that present moment in time.
“It became a symbol of how deeply in crisis we are, right? As human beings, as the planet, in terms of the violence in our culture. I think it is pretty specific to America and who we are,” she continued.
That exists beyond the experience of personal grief, but on the record, it serves as a reminder of the various experiences of it. “Hell,” in that way, is reflection of what Brownstein calls “an exploration of the liminal, of sort of being between two states of, like, you know, joy and grief, or alive and dead, high-low… a precipice, the idea of precarity.
“A lot of these songs were written before I lost my mom, but her death informed the process as much as it informed the actual content of the songs,” she says.
This is the first Sleater-Kinney record in many years — likely since 2005’s “The Woods” — that Tucker does the majority of the singing. “I really needed to hear Corin’s voice, and so much of the grief was returning to what I needed.” Brownstein could play guitar and write songs, but she needed her bandmate and closest friend to sing it, and to sing it in a fashion that did justice to the subject matter.
The album’s title makes sense in that context. That “Little Rope,” that push and pull, the comfort and the ways in which the pair challenge each other, makes this record one of their best in years.
“Music, to me, is a ritual that is very sacred and thus very close to prayer. You know, there is something prayerful about the choreography of returning to guitar or singing. And so, I think it is actually a very natural, like, probably age-old way of processing sorrow,” Brownstein says.
Song allows you to share your interiority, and so “playing music is really important for the process of living with grief,” she adds.
There is beauty in another stage of the process: sharing it with others, on a record or in a live arena. Tucker calls it “the transcendent moment where you’re both giving and gaining” with an audience. “Like Bruce Springsteen said, ‘You’ve got your religion, I’ve got mine.’”
Brownstein jumps in, “And Sleater-Kinney has always been a container for our vulnerabilities.
“We have so many songs that come from a place of strife or anger and then they just start to sound triumphant after a while,” she adds. “And that, I think, is the beauty of sharing music with people.”