Sleater-Kinney – Path of Wellness: Let’s get lost, baby, and take a wrong turn.

Artist: Sleater-Kinney
Album: Path of Wellness
Year: 2021
Grade: C+

In Brief: On their first album as a duo, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein exchange a lot of their usual passion, rage, and affinity for making rambunctious noise for more of an introspective curiosity, which is still noisy in places but much more subdued in others. I appreciate the exploratory nature of this project, and I think it has some worthwhile things to say, but given the iconic sound Sleater-Kinney had cultivated as a power trio over the years, it’s hard not to miss that now that they’re apparently forging a new identity.


I’m trying to leave the past in the past and keep an open mind as I listen to this new Sleater-Kinney album. I’m sure it’s predictable at this point that I won’t be able to talk about the iconic all-female punk rock band without bringing up the departure of their drummer Janet Weiss two years ago. I made my feelings on the issue quite clear when I reviewed The Center Won’t Hold, which was the last album the band made with her as a member (marginally speaking, at least). Two years later, I’m still mystified at how the two founding members of the band, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, could suddenly decide on artistic direction that Janet wasn’t fully on board with, effectively freeze her out of the creative process when she had been a strong contributor to that process in the past, and then act surprised when she chose to leave the band completely. But, with the band soldiering on as a duo, I don’t want to base all of my feelings about it on a person who was not involved in making it. For better or for worse, Sleater-Kinney is a different band now, and the new material that Corin and Carrie have come up with on their 2021 release Path of Wellness deserves to be judged on its own terms, without me constantly bringing up a decision they made years ago that I still regard as a bone-headed move. (Aaaaaaand then along comes the curious choice of cover art, which depicts the bones inside their heads. Sigh. They’re not making this easy on me.)

Here’s the thing: I don’t have to agree with every creative choice that a band makes in order to still respect them as artists. Sleater-Kinney won me over back in 2015 when they broke back onto the scene with their triumphant comeback The Center Won’t Hold, a record which got me to enjoy a style I honestly wasn’t sure would ever be my thing, and to come to appreciate a lot of the challenging and confrontational lyrics contained within. This is a group that has a keen ear for a catchy riff or melodic hook, but will often distort or “unprettify” it in some way to make it clear that their intent is something more than just superficial entertainment. I’ve come to really appreciate that aspect of the band, even though (perhaps by design) it was initially off-putting. The core personalities that made those decisions are still the ones calling the shots, so even though the group is down one stellar musician, they’re still one of the more fascinating musical duos alive today, whether you measure it by their songwriting skills, their vocal interplay with each other, or their unconventional guitar playing. Of course I’m still going to be curious when they come up with new material together. I had said at the time of The Center Won’t Hold‘s release that it really felt like more of a side project, a whole other band that Corin and Carrie had formed with St. Vincent as their producer and co-writer, but I actually don’t feel that way about Path of Wellness. While this is a bit of a departure in sound both from Center and from their previous work, it’s pretty clear to me why they’re continuing to use the Sleater-Kinney name. The duo self-produced this time out, so in essence, this may be the purest expression of who these two women are that they’ve ever put to tape. At least in theory, I have a ton of respect for that.

In practice… ehhhhhh, this is pretty iffy. I’ve been sitting on the fence on this one ever since it came out in June, really wanting to like it, occasionally getting into the groove of a song or two, but mostly finding it to be a huge drop in energy and vitality from what I assume most Sleater-Kinney fans would have reasonably expected. This is a band that has evolved a lot over the years. Their albums were short, blunt, and to the point back in the early days; as their musical vocabulary expanded in the late 90s and early 2000s, they could come up with thought-provoking introspective ballads just as easily as they could come up with subversive, gnarled versions of pop songs, and then from out of nowhere they’d be screaming bloody murder on a track or two. Some of their songwriting even poked fun at people who expected them not to change. So I want to be able to roll with the punches, because clearly these are artists who have felt constrained and frustrated by narrow-minded fans who were unsupportive of their right to be whatever the hell they felt like at any given moment. What they feel like being on Path of Wellness often feels like a greyer, less sure-footed version of their old selves, with a surprising amount of keyboards on several tracks, and understandably less emphasis on the drums. It’s weird, though, because a few of these tracks seem to want to do interesting things with percussion in a way that perhaps sets them apart from the style of their old drummer. With Carrie now pulling double duty as keyboardist and guitarist, and Corin largely sticking to the guitar, the duo has neither brought in a new permanent drummer nor made an attempt to usurp that role themselves, meaning it’s left to two or three guest drummers to give most of these tracks a rhythmic backbone. The problem is that it’s a bit non-committal – the drumming on some tracks feels rather rote, while on others it’s actually quite lively, with energetic fills here and there that compare at least somewhat favorably to the dependably kick-ass drumming on their old records, but the production doesn’t always do those interesting percussion tricks a lot of justice. A lot of this record just feels limp and lifeless. I’m OK with Sleater-Kinney being weird and challenging and not always having to be aggressive to get their point across. I’m less OK with them landing in the doldrums between two opposite extremes that they weren’t sure how to reconcile.

The songwriting on this record – at least, when I think I’ve managed some semblance of understanding what the heck they’re singing about – is still thought-provoking in several places. Honestly, when you’re so used to a band’s lyrics being in-your-face about relational/political/societal issues that bug them, it can be startling to hear them write a few songs about being in a healthy place and feeling some sense of confidence about the future, which I think was the entire point of giving this record such a positive title – it catches the audience off-guard. In just about any musical or emotional context, this is a band that can be counted on to speak its mind, and I don’t think we’ll ever see them back down on this. So whatever qualms I have with this record, it’s not with what’s being said; it’s more with the effectiveness of how they’re saying it. I feel like I need to make that clear, because this is one of those bands that is tricky for me, as a male writer, to critique without coming across as though I’m pushing back on their outspoken feminist views or anything like that. Shoot, there’s a track on this album that skewers men who superficially support strong, pro-feminist portrayals of women while missing the point entirely by still wanting their appearance and demeanor to toss a bone to the whims of a male audience and not pose any genuine challenges to their worldview. I don’t want to be that guy, y’know? I think it’s reasonable to accept that the book has been closed on the Sleater-Kinney I belatedly got to know in the mid-2010s, whose back catalogue I then voraciously dug into. But I also think it’s reasonable to hope that artistic voices you still respect and admire will find a way to put their best foot forward in their new endeavors. I don’t think they quite pulled it off here. But I also don’t think they’ve quite found their footing yet, so I’m not gonna say their heyday is fully behind them or that they don’t have any great records left in ’em. This just happens to be one of those records that was made during a transition rather than at the other end of it, that’s all.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Path of Wellness
It’s quite interesting for a band that just lost their drummer, and that has never had a permanent bassist, to start an album off with idiosyncratic percussion and a fuzzed-out bass line. Not that I’m complaining. It may have taken a few tries for this track to grow on me, partially because I wasn’t sure what to make of its upbeat-but-not-terribly-aggressive nature at first… but come on. You know I can’t resist it when a band decides to lead with rhythm. Vince Lirocchi is the percussionist responsible for this track’s engaging thumps, clangs, and speedy drum rolls, and he does a bang-up job here (pun intended), even though obviously the guitars and vocals are still the stars of the show. Carrie’s got a great lead guitar line here that absolutely steals my heart when it finally breaks in – and the delayed gratification reminds me very much of how the title track from The Center Won’t Hold made us wait for the payoff, even if it’s stylistically quite different. Both Corin and Carrie seem to be singing in unison on much of this track, though neither one is going full-blast, with many of the lyrics coming out somewhere between plain speech and a gasp. I guess this is meant to reflect the exhaustion expressed in the lyrics, with trying to measure up to other people standards of what they should be and do. They rather quickly conclude that it’s futile, because “You could never love me enough”, and this song serves as a declaration that being on the “path of wellness” means living according to their own standards and pursuing their own goals, no matter how others might criticize them for it. It’s a smart way to start off a record at a point in their career where they’ve no doubt had a lot of criticism hurled at them – ultimately they’re making this music to please themselves, and the rest of us are just listening in.
Grade: A-

2. High in the Grass
The sudden burst of fuzzy noise at the beginning of this song is a bit misleading – it has you anticipating a build-up to something truly epic, only for the song to settle into more of a laid-back, mid-tempo pop/rock groove. Here’s the thing, though – as laid-back pop songs by otherwise rambunctious rock bands go, this one’s pretty darn good. You can chalk part of that up to the vivid, happy imagery in the lyrics, which finds the two women throwing a party somewhere deep in a field of grass, with no hint of civilization in sight, just being one with nature, not a care in the world. But the biggest surprise here is just how darn pretty Corin’s vocals are. I don’t say that as a slight to any of her past work. She has a powerful vibrato that she’s often used to command attention on a lot of the band’s punkier songs, and every now and then she’s done something more vulnerable like “Sympathy” or “Broken” that has shown off her more melancholy side. So I always knew she was capable of something like this. The band’s style of songwriting just generally didn’t call for it. Here, she croons the verses so sweetly that I’m knocked sideways by the effect, and then Carrie joins in for more of a power pop chorus, and this all seems very foreign for Sleater-Kinney, but they pull it off amazingly well. It helps that they center the song around their grimy, distorted guitars, and Brian Koch‘s drumming, and they do manage to come back around to that initial explosion of energy as the bridge reaches its climax. So while it may seem like an odd fit for this band at first, it turns out to be the highlight of the album once you give it time for all the pieces to fall into place. It’s the perfect song to blast during a scenic drive in the spring or summer.
Grade: A

3. Worry with You
This was the album’s first single, and my initial reaction to it was pretty “meh”, not unlike how I first reacted to “Hurry on Home” back when that was our first taste of The Center Won’t Hold. Like that song, this one has Carrie on lead vocals, and it finds her anticipating the return of someone she loves after a long time away. Unlike that song, this one’s actually grown on me a fair amount – I wouldn’t say it’s great, but it’s a reasonably fun song to bob your head to. The lyrics will be relatable to many who have suffered long bouts of loneliness after months of social distancing – basically what they’re saying is that having a lover by your side won’t solve all your problems, but at least you’d have that person to fret and stress and commiserate with instead of having to do it all by yourself. Carrie’s scrappy, half-spoken vocal approach, the punchy chorus, and her warped yet melodic guitar lines are all familiar elements of latter-day Sleater-Kinney, so I don’t mind any of this, but I’m not wowed by most of it either. What strikes as most odd is how she goes for the jugular in the first verse by saying “If I’m gonna fuck up, I’m gonna fuck up with you”, and then backpedals and changes it to “mess up” in the second verse. A bit late to censor yourself there, but whatever.
Grade: B

4. Method
Carrie takes the lead again on this track, which stands out from the songs around it by having more of a syncopated rhythm, but unfortunately both the tempo and the production values make it feel rather lackadaisical. I’m realizing that there’s no lack of talent on the part of the drummers who participated on this record (it’s mostly Vince Lirocchi and Brian Koch trading back and forth, with Koch playing on this particular track), but often when it sounds like one of them wants to do something more energetic, it just doesn’t hit with the same force that it used to on most of the band’s classic material. I’m not sure if that’s due to production choices made by a band self-producing for the first time, or if it’s just because few drummers are as skilled as Janet Weiss… but anyway. Obviously there’s more to this song than just a beat, even if the melody and Carrie’s vocal delivery seem a bit half-hearted and thus don’t do a whole lot to draw my attention. She’s playing keyboards here as well, which she’s been doing on every track thus far; it’s just a bit more prominent here. I think this is one of those songs that a songwriter comes up with out of frustration when they’re trying to turn over a new leaf and the audience won’t let them. (And yes, I realize the irony inherent in that observation when I’m being largely critical of this album.) She mentions numerous times that she’s trying to sing about love, but the person she’s trying to communicate with is singing about hate, and then she ends up sounding like she’s singing about hate when she’s not because she gets so fed up with the negative feedback. It’s a nice idea that gets lost in an infuriating amount of repetition – seriously, there’s no reason for this song to drag out to four-plus minutes when it’s said everything it needs to say by about the three-minute mark. There’s a halfway decent guitar solo in here – just wrap it up with a quick chorus after that and be done with it!
Grade: C+

5. Shadow Town
This track is definitely one of the album’s better experiments. It starts off at a slow, brooding pace, kind of reminding me of the eerie “Ruins” from the previous album, but it’s got a texture all its own, being based around Carrie’s Rhodes organ and a slow drum pattern. The song basically has a slow gear and a fast gear, which it shifts between rather suddenly, with the drums going double-time for a few more energetic sprints in the chorus (and even throwing in some cowbell!) The lyrics are fairly impressionistic and repetitive, but they do a decent job of setting a scene, lamenting the urban decay in parts of their hometown that were once vibrant. They’ve referenced Portland both explicitly and obliquely in several song lyrics throughout the years, sometimes making the city out to be its own character, with which they have a tumultuous relationship. Their music scene and their community is largely centered there, but the city also has its fair share of systemic problems and wealth inequality, and I’m guessing that’s what has them so bummed here – to see a part of it losing its soul because either people can’t afford to live there, or it’s not safe to do so. The lyrics don’t dig quite deep enough into this to make it thoroughly thought-provoking, but you can hear the desperation in both of their voices for things to be back the way they once were, when they could feel like they were in love with the place. It’s a subdued, but engaging performance, and I like how it lingers on Carrie’s keyboards and the bass for a little bit at the end. There aren’t many Sleater-Kinney songs that could justify a length of over five minutes, but this one makes a pretty good case for itself.
Grade: B+

6. Favorite Neighbor
The second half of the album starts off with a bit more energy. The distorted guitars pack a bit more punch, Carrie’s usual half-yelped vocal style has a bit more sass to it, and there are actually two percussionists this time around to make things more lively – Angie Boyland is behind a drum kit as well as Vince Lirocchi. Given all these ingredients, I should probably enjoy this song more than I do – it’s got everything I’d have expected in a Sleater-Kinney song as well as some surprises (mainly the cowbell and Carrie’s Rhodes – I guess not that much of a surprise after the previous track, but I like the way they’re implemented here), and the punchy lyric aimed at putting a person in their place who seems to be overstepping their bounds under the guise of being helpful. There’s really nothing here that I can outwardly dislike, but maybe the song ends before I feel like it really kicks into gear, or maybe I don’t find the melody or any of the instrumental hooks all that engaging. This song’s always just sort of been stuck in the middle for me.
Grade: B-

7. Tomorrow’s Grave
Both percussionists are back at it on this track, which opens with quite a ruckus – messy, stumbling drum fills, warped guitar melodies, indistinct voices mumbling in the background – it zips along awkwardly but amusingly, like an old race car on the verge of completely falling apart. This is all very engaging despite the weirdness of it (and shoot, it’s not like this is the first time Sleater-Kinney has been this deliberately sloppy and discordant – see damn near every track on The Woods). But it starts to fall apart when the intro downshifts into a mellower verse, and then verse downshifts again into a heavier and slower chorus, and unlike “Shadow Town”, most of the transitions are jarring. That combined with the rambling vocal delivery led me to an “aha!” moment when I realized that this is essentially a Fiery Furnaces song – and not one of their better ones. So much creative potential was squandered here.
Grade: C+

8. No Knives
Ugh, what even is this track? Basically it’s a slow, cranky diatribe with deliberately maudlin, off-key vocals, delivered against the backdrop of grey, gloomy guitar distortion, that only lasts a minute yet somehow still manages to be repetitive and boring. We get the joke after the first few lines – they’re sarcastically inviting us to enjoy a meal that was prepared in the most clinical and sanitary fashion, without the diners having to be disturbed by the ugly process of knowing how the proverbial sausage was made. This feels like another thinly veiled shot at an intolerant audience that doesn’t like any kind of change or challenge to their worldview. It’s a reasonable point to make, but this is an annoying and preachy way to make it, especially when that same point was articulated better earlier in the album.
Grade: D

9. Complex Female Characters
This is one of those songs where I want to be really careful how I critique it, because I don’t disagree with the message of the song in any way. It’s just the delivery that doesn’t really work for me, on multiple levels. Basically, the premise of it is that Carrie is sarcastically imagining the thought process of a man – maybe a novelist or a screenwriter or someone in a position of cultural influence – who thinks he’s being progressive by coming up with strong, capable female characters to fill out a story, but he’s still holding something back for the sake of making them palatable. Maybe he’s insisting they be played by conventionally “pretty” actresses for the sake of fanservice, or maybe he’s acquiescing to notes from the network about aspects of their characters that male viewers will find off-putting. Basically he gets the credit for diversifying his cast without putting in the work to actually make the characters authentic. (Which is why movies and TV shows need more women in the writer’s rooms, but that’s a tangent for another day.) It’s a sturdy premise. A songwriter could come up with some real cutting insights here. Unfortunately, the song pretty much gives away its punchline by putting the chorus first: “Well, I like those complex female characters/But I want my women to go down easy.” You’ll hear that phrase repeated several times – to a rather dull melody, a lifeless drum beat, and some half-hearted guitar licks – until you get to the point where it honestly feels like the song has nowhere to go. There’s really only one verse to flesh out what this means: “Oh, keep something in there to please me/I want to stay hooked and for you to tease me.” The second half of the song finally shows some signs of life, musically speaking, when a very loud guitar solo comes tearing in, executing a hostile takeover of everything that was happening before. This makes me wonder why the song didn’t just start out that way, since it’s one of those songs where the writer has every reason to be royally pissed off. And I get it – Sleater-Kinney used to do pretty much everything at that speed and volume back in the day, and a band can only do so much of that before the lack of variance causes listener fatigue. But it’s frustrating for this song to finally show some teeth, only to get caught up in ludicrous amounts of repetition once again, with its final refrain of “You can’t escape my imagination!” being shouted at least ten times. It’s like they came up up with a few killer turns of phrase, decided that would be enough to get the point across, and then hit a wall when trying to figure out how to tell the rest of the story.
Grade: C+

10. Down the Line
Is it just me, or has Carrie been singing lead on a lot more songs than Corin on this record? I noticed that trend on Center as well. Maybe it’s just one of those things where whoever originates the song gets to be the one to sing it, which is what a lot of bands with multiple vocalists do. But it’s starting to feel like a lot of the filler is going to her, and that hasn’t necessarily been true in the past, when a lot of my favorite Sleater-Kinney tracks were either Carrie songs, or ones that focused on the vocal back-and-forth between the two. Anyway, I’m making that observation now because I don’t really have a whole lot to say about this track otherwise. Some nominally good guitar licks here, but everything else is on mid-tempo auto-pilot. The lyrics, which seem to be about grappling with the loss of loved ones and much of our way of life during the Covid crisis, are mostly a retread of the longing to be with someone throughout it rather than weathering the storm alone, that was explored in “Worry with You”. So this is a bit of a redundant song that doesn’t do a whole lot to justify taking up space on an album that has already grown a bit dull and colorless in its final stretch.
Grade: C-

11. Bring Mercy
The first few times through this album, I was so bummed at this point that I had kind of tuned out. Turns out I was missing a pretty decent closing track. It’s nothing that blows me away, but I feel like if Sleater-Kinney is going to do more of a mid-tempo, contemplative anthem to close things out, then the keyboards are a good addition to their sound, as they help bring feeling and color to the otherwise drab sound that the band ends up with when they dial down their usually noisy guitars. This song was clearly a very personal one to them, as they watched their city get ravaged by disease, rioting, wildfires, and a disturbing amount of far-right activism over the course of 2020, and this song is a very weary but ultimately hopeful admission that Portland is in need of a lot of healing. It almost reads as a prayer – the secular humanist version of one, at least, because rather than appealing to an invisible deity, it’s more likely that they have a lot of faith in like-minded people to help put their beloved home back together again. This song helps to flesh out the sorrow felt in “Shadow Town”, while standing nicely on its own as a beacon of hope and reason in the midst of an absolutely depressing time in American history. I’m glad they chose to end the album on such a note.
Grade: B

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Path of Wellness $1.50
High in the Grass $1.75
Worry with You $1
Method $.50
Shadow Town $1.25
Favorite Neighbor $.75
Tomorrow’s Grave $.50
No Knives -$.25
Complex Female Characters $.50
Down the Line $0
Bring Mercy $1
TOTAL: $

BAND MEMBERS:
Carrie Brownstein: Vocals, guitars
Corin Tucker: Vocals, guitars

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.sleater-kinney.com
https://www.facebook.com/SleaterKinney

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