Sleater-Kinney’s 2019 album, The Center Won’t Hold, felt like a transitional phase. The shift was likely aimed to establish a more mature identity but felt somewhat awkward due to its pronounced reliance on new wave and art pop elements – perhaps leaning a bit too heavily on St. Vincent’s influence as a producer. In 2021, Path of Wellness emerged as their first release without drummer Janet Weiss since 1996 and their first venture into self-production. While technically brilliant, its minimalistic nature lacked the spark and drive that defines Sleater-Kinney.
Their 11th album and fourth since returning from hiatus, Little Rope retains elements of both of these project. The artistic flair of The Center Won’t Hold and the tightness of Path of Wellness are still present, but they find a comfortable position between the two that feels somewhat familiar and certainly natural for Sleater-Kinney. Working with producer John Congleton for the first time, Little Rope takes on a slightly more atmospheric identity, focusing more on the tension that can be found within the sonic space.
“Hell” opens the album with a controlled tension before releasing it into a frenzy of screaming vocals, cymbals, and distortion pedals, showing their riot grrrl roots before recollecting themselves once again – though the subsequent verse contains an air of uncertainty that never quite lets up before it explodes again. “Untidy Creature” takes the same approach, with the quietest parts of the track (and some of the quietest on the album) being thickened with a misty ambience that slowly builds upon itself before ending the album on a loud note. Sleater-Kinney fans, rest assured – you will not find a comfortable headphone volume on this one.
In the Autumn of 2022, with Little Rope already in the works, lead singer and guitarist Corin Tucker, designated as bandmate Carrie Brownstein’s emergency contact, received a call from the American embassy in Italy, urgently seeking to contact Brownstein. Her mother and stepfather had passed in a car accident while on vacation.
Some of the album had already been written, though the concept of grief manages to work its way into every detail, acting as a sheen across many of the songs rather than the theme. Along with their classically economic lyrical style, this creates a very personal and unpretentiously poignant glimpse into the pervasive nature of grief in people’s lives.
Separating the album from its backstory, its intrinsic sadness can be hard to detect upon first listen. However, the repetitive tendencies of their lyricism – a hallmark of Sleater-Kinney’s style – virtually ensures that it will linger in your mind until you find the underlying grief within yourself. In the track “Hunt You Down”, for example, Tucker echoes the poignant words, “The thing you fear the most will hunt you down,” a phrase Brownstein came across in an interview with a funeral director, spoken by a father preparing to bury his child. With each recurrence, these words grow more haunting, gradually prompting the listener to question their own fears.
The album not only explores how we navigate grief, but whom we choose to navigate it with. This is perhaps most clear on “Don’t Feel Right”, the only song on the album to explicitly mention the word: “Every night, when the sun’s down / Drive around, drown the pain out / Warped from grief, can’t go home / I don’t feel right, that’s all I know.” On this track, as on the rest of Little Rope, Tucker takes over most of the vocals, effectively becoming Brownstein’s voice as she navigates her grief. This dynamic blurs the lines between their individual thoughts and feelings, especially when she later sings “I’ll get up and make that list / Remind you, I exist / Learn to cook, write you prose / Stay right here, hold you close.” It becomes unclear whether Corin is reassuring Carrie or Carrie is reaching out for Corin, the intertwining of their voices navigating the complexities of grief together.
On “Small Finds”, the deceptively heartbreaking lyrics reveal the meaning behind the album’s title. “Can you gimme a little rope?” Tucker asks within the first verse before the chorus exclaims “Little wins pull me in / Little wins fill me up.” She’s asking for something small to help her keep going, a little rope to hold her afloat. Little Rope is the product of a band who have never been afraid to dig deep and explore their pain, who rely on each other and aren’t afraid to show it. It’s not simply a reaction to tragedy, but an examination of how it paints our lives – and how love is found within it.