Like the work of only a few bands in the ’90s, Sleater-Kinney’s rock has kept every promise it has ever made, even when the promises weren’t the old, safe oaths, but newer gestures, more complex and delicate, more difficult to fulfill. The band members know they can handle it, as Corin Tucker declares on The Hot Rock: “I’m a mess/I’m the worst/But the best/That you’ve heard.”

Riveting, cathartic, and possessed of a muse that shows no sign of letting up, Sleater-Kinney makes the guts move as it shifts gears with this, its fourth album. Guitarists and singers Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and drummer Janet Weiss could have made ’97’s mini-breakthrough Dig Me Out again and again, and everyone would have called them geniuses—which makes The Hot Rock all the more impressive. Its emotions are more restrained and closer to the surface; the songs favor a steady unraveling over point-blank explosion; and everything sounds richer and more textured. What was once the short, sharp shock is now bigger and deeper.

Rising from the ashes of Tucker’s Heavens to Betsy and Brownstein’s Excuse 17, Sleater-Kinney combines kinetic, interlocking guitars—which Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd would be proud to call their own—with dynamic dispatches from the female front; the band is impressionistic and enigmatic but still retains a focused passion. Folks love to chat about the secret weapon that is Tucker’s singular voice, but Sleater-Kinney’s teamwork is the clincher. Brownstein’s sharp, increasingly technical guitar playing (she brags in interviews about learning scales) amplifies both Tucker’s harsh delivery and her own quiet storms.

Punk purists have given them no end of whispered flak for songs that are not as overtly political as those of their previous bands, but these people are not truly paying attention. Live, Brownstein and Tucker speak like bombs, and you only need to see dozens upon dozens of women in unison singing, “Some things you lose/Some things you give away” from Call the Doctor’s “Good Things” to know that their fusion of the heart and the hand is near perfect. The ass-kicking Dig Me Out’s energy built on and streamlined Call the Doctor’s jagged foundation, two parts Rumors to three parts Pussy Whipped, spilling over with passion, joy, and an unbridled lust for life and loss. They packed the record with highlights, but suffice it to say that no heart was left unbroken by “One More Hour”—the last, best breakup song of the millennium, in which Brownstein’s matter-of-fact phrasing throws Tucker’s anguish into acute relief. Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out spilled their guts and left the listener to put them back together.

The Hot Rock has a richer agenda. Its pleasures lie farther beneath the surface, and it is not an easy record to wrap your ears around. Whereas Dig and Doctor offered nearly instant gratification, The Hot Rock tries for the big moments and the wide sweep. Producer Roger Moutenot has abetted this transformation, fleshing out the band’s sound with a growling low end, blending what were once brittle wires into a more supple rope able to support all sorts of new weight. The first song, “Start Together,” unfolds like a movie, all vocal impressions and quick cuts, coming into focus with a thrilling opening volley. The closer, “A Quarter to Three,” wanders off into the sunrise totally spent, with a tangible sense of loss, a chorus copped from Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” and some seriously New Order-ish guitars. (Bernard Sumner hasn’t been worshipped like this since the Edge started copping all those Joy Division riffs.) In between stretches a landscape of new sounds and complicated chordings.

The raging “God Is a Number” looks at displacement by technology, and “Banned From the End of the World” (get it?) examines millennial anxiety; for such an epic record, something built to last, the latter tune is the only true clunker, and you can only hope that there are few Y2K songs in the future. It’s just about time in the band’s career for a price-of-fame song; Sleater-Kinney couldn’t very well have emerged from the hype and chaos around Dig Me Out (bad Time magazine article, good sales, dozens of packed shows) without at least one. “The End of You” name-checks Athena and seems to be about boating; Tucker double-crosses her glaring talents when she sings, “I am not the captain/I am just another fan.” But few of their fans throw down the way they can. “Don’t Talk Like” has a perfectly metered, casual elegance—the sort of song that can only come from serious craft.

But in spite of the more delicate, self-consciously pretty structures, the band’s plain-spoken darkness has gotten sharper. Tucker may have the shattering voice that gets all the press, but it would be lost without Brownstein’s deadpan vocals. “The Size of Our Love” is purely harrowing for its straight-faced description of losing a loved one to cancer. The music is this far away from a power ballad: a bigger risk than it sounds. But what could have come off as exploitative and mawkish is deeply moving, a moment refined until it is pure sadness—and further proof that Sleater-Kinney’s music can still keep its promises.CP