There is about grief the necessary aftertaste of dreaming. In the wake of sudden loss – a moment, a person, a way of being brought violently to an end – the thing lost is gone but not its outline, a strange unstable place in which festers all manner of strange unstable thinking. The rules of reality temporarily subside, and mourning makes of the world a negative space.
Plunged without warning into that space, Sleater-Kinney returns with Little Rope, one of the finest, most delicately layered records in the band’s nearly 30-year career. To call the album flawless feels like an insult to its intent – it careens headfirst into flaw, into brokenness, a meditation on what living in a world of perpetual crisis has done to us, and what we do to the world in return. On the surface, the album’s ten songs veer from spare to anthemic, catchy to deliberately hard-turning. But beneath that are perhaps the most complex and subtle arrangements of any Sleater-Kinney record, and a lyrical and emotional compass pointed firmly in the direction of something both liberating and terrifying: the sense that only way to gain control is to let it go.
In the Autumn of 2022, Carrie Brownstein received a call from Corin Tucker, who herself had just received a call from the American embassy in Italy. Years earlier, Brownstein listed Tucker as her emergency contact on a passport form, and while she had since changed her phone number, Tucker had not. The embassy staff were desperately trying to reach Brownstein. When they finally did, they told her what happened: While vacationing in Italy, Brownstein’s mother and stepfather had been in a car accident. Both were killed.
In the months that followed, Brownstein took solace in an act that felt deeply familiar – playing guitar. “I don’t think I’ve played guitar that much since my teens or early twenties,” she says. “Literally moving my fingers across the fretboard for hours on end to remind myself I was still capable of basic motor skills, of movement, of existing.”
Although some of the album had already been written, aspects of each song—a guitar solo, the singing style, the sonic approach—were pulled into a changed emotional landscape. As Brownstein and Tucker moved through the early aftermath of the tragedy, elements of what was to become the emotional backbone of Little Rope began to form – how we navigate grief, who we navigate it with, and the ways in which it transforms us. Sometimes the process of putting the songs together involved Tucker and Brownstein alone in a room with nothing more than a couple of guitars and amplifiers – a process unchanged since the band started recording in the mid-90s. Sometimes songs that started out quiet slowly transformed into something triumphant. Sometimes the triumphant ones turned out to be quiet songs in disguise.
The result is a collision of certainty and uncertainty that’s evident from the first few spare seconds of the record’s opening track, “Hell,” where over an agoraphobic expanse of tone and a trickle of chords, Little Rope’s emotional thesis statement begins to take form:
Hell don’t have no worries
Hell don’t have no past
Hell is just a signpost when you take a certain path
It’s a restrained, controlled prologue, but control is fleeting. A few seconds later, well, all hell breaks loose.
That interplay of lyrical and musical moods gives the record an immense depth. Even the catchiest hooks are hiding something. The album’s second track, “Needlessly Wild,” starts out delicious, the single-syllable “wild” bending like taffy. But then the lyrics betray something a little more malicious, a little more marked by pain, and soon “I’m needlessly wild” festers into “I’m needless and wild, needless and wild.”
Time and again – on second, third, tenth listen – the songs on Little Rope begin to upend their initial impressions. The jangly, upbeat “Don’t Feel Right” camouflages an unshakable loneliness, a longing for something that’s never coming back. In “Hunt You Down,” the opening riff sounds a warning that smashes against a chorus delivered with a hint of deceptive sweetness: “The thing you fear the most will hunt you down” – a line Brownstein heard in an interview with a funeral director, said to him by a father preparing to bury his child.
One of the album’s standout tracks, “Say It Like You Mean It,” is an amalgam of so much of what the band does best – an unforgettable, unadorned riff backing a raw examination of a relationship coming apart. It’s an exposed nerve ending of a song.
Little Rope also marks the first time the band has worked with Grammy Award-winning producer John Congleton.
“We’ve actually wanted to work with John for a long time, but it wasn’t until this record that the stars aligned and we made it happen,” says Tucker. Congleton’s fingerprints are all over the album – he built a lot of the atmospherics in songs such as “Hell” or “Six Mistakes,” which both started out as much more spare tracks. It was also Congleton who heard the Tucker’s first run at the vocals for “Say It Like You Mean It” needed rework, a piece of advice that at first didn’t land too well.
“I was fuming inside, but I decided to take the song home that night and think about it,” Tucker says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and a new vocal melody popped into my head, which I sang very quietly into my phone at 3 in the morning. The next day I came back into the studio and sang the new version, and it turned out John was right – the song needed that reworking to get at the emotional peak.”
In many ways, Little Rope unleashes one of Sleater-Kinney’s most potent weapons: the shattering emotional range of Tucker’s vocals. In an album so centered on the vulnerability required to face the world as it is, Tucker manages to find her way from composure to its utter absence, and what she conjures is a series of visceral turns, a sharper, heavier manifestation of a rawness that’s always been there, most notably on the band’s early landmark record, Dig Me Out. Perhaps the most unforgettable of these moments comes near the very end of the album, in the brilliant closing track, “Untidy Creature” – a song that almost didn’t make it onto the record, but ends up being the perfect coda, at once the biggest-sounding track on the record and its most lyrically intimate:
But here’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
Then the chorus gives way, and in its place a deep, desperate wail that closes one of the most honest and soul-bearing albums by one of modern rock’s most vital bands.