On their first album without Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein rebuild their center on an impressive new album
It’s been a weird few years for veteran Olympia, Washington, indie rockers Sleater-Kinney. One could say they’ve been wearing their emotions on their album sleeves (sorry!).
After a break of four years, 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold proved way too prophetic. During the album’s pre-release promotion, the band suffered its first departure in 23 years. And it clearly was not planned. Drummer Janet Weiss just sort of stopped showing up for promo and eventually the band had to admit she was done.
In 2021, Sleater-Kinney return as the duo of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. To this effore, they are very clear that it’s been a healing process (or it’s just a title) with Path of Wellness. In a sense, it’s back to their roots. Weiss joined the band in 1996; before that, the band was the two of them with a revolving drummer. However, given that the addition of Weiss coincided with the time the band launched forward, it’s hard to completely ignore. The following year, Sleater-Kinney became college radio’s hottest band to watch.
They never really lost their momentum apart from a long hiatus after 2006’s post-punk masterpiece The Woods. They certainly never relinquished their indie cred. However, reviews of The Center Won’t Hold, while not brutal, were lukewarm. The question of whether Sleater-Kinney has another act left in them is legit. Are they really “well,” so to speak? Well, not as such, but that’s part of what makes the album so fulfilling.
Album: Path of Wellness
Label: Mom + Pop
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Much has been written about the death of the album–and in fact, it’s been being written for over 20 years at this point. Path of Wellness offers a gentle reminder of why they still exist and how a great one can be crafted. The band exposed three tracks and videos before the release of this record (“High in the Grass,” “Worry with You,” and “Method”); each worked well enough as singles. However, when put in order in context of the album, it’s as if they transform magic-eye style. It’s an album where for the most part the whole exceeds–by metric tons–the sum of its parts.
Path of Wellness opens on the title track and it can’t help but feel a bit trollish that the percussion is pushed way, way forward in the mix. It’s an immediate sound that starts out almost disco before breaking into a world-flecked, post-punk signature somewhere between Talking Heads and Mission of Burma. The post-breakup song morphs multiple times in the course of less than three minutes. It’s an element that mirrors the moments after a love’s unexpected split. The marvelous dissonance between the closing chant of “I’m on a path to wellness” over a new wave keyboard, this after schizophrenically cycling through styles at a fevered pace sets the tone for a gloriously unpredictable record that just fits together like perfect puzzle pieces.
There’s a particularly pandemic feel to “High in the Grass” as it tears the sweet from that inebriated spot between sobriety and regret. It sets itself up with the singer deep in the haze of a blissed Spring, the sort where bees buzz around and we “dance to no music like fools.” But as on Lou Reed’s perfect day, something’s clearly amiss and ominous dangers abound in the narrator’s world. Bees can sting and you must “feast on the day as it runs from you.”
The song reeks of the inabilitly to truly let go, to believe in the possibility of a normal existence, as much as we long for escape. “We love when the party’s on/There is only this day for us to move/We live just a moment long.” Even drunken reverie, the sort that’s supposed to guard against anxiety is no defense from the self-awareness that glee can be entirely an illusion. While it’s not a depressed song, it fits perfectly as the second song on the album–after all, wellness is a path.
That bleeds into “Worry with You” where the anxiety is given free range with the hope that it will lead to love (or at least some form of mutually assured preservation). “Let’s get lost baby and take a wrong turn.” If they remind me of anyone else on this track it’s Helium with the angular and insistent punk guitar and staccato phrasing with flecks of the baroque. There’s just touches of ‘60s girl group that manifest perfectly when the repeated phrase “…if I’m gonna worry, I’m gonna worry with you” is cutely followed by the less-than-reassuring reassurance “it’s true.”
There’s an almost Fleetwod Mac-esque appeal to the chorus (and lyrics for that matter) of “Method” as Brownstein implores “could you try a little kindness maybe” and “could you be a little softer to me” over a sinister organ hook. However, there’s still that Television-y borderline atonal punk guitar that tilts the background off-kilter as she breaks down while pondering the conflation of love and hate. “I’m singing about love and it’s coming out like hate.” There’s something oddly sweet when she declares at the song’s end “it’s a love song”–as if she has just figured it out–and leaves it there.
By the way, Path of Wellness may be the hookiest record Sleater-Kinney has recorded; however, that’s more to say the hooks are closer to the surface as they’ve ever been. They are practically absent upon first listen save for the last track (but we’ll get to that). However, upon repeated plays, the melodies lurking beneath the jagged and somewhat arrythmic veneer slowly begin to peer out and invite further exploration.
“Shadow Town” boldly opens with a metaphor that conjures up segregation “we walk through shadow town/red lines through our house” which the narrator uses to explore a dying relationship. It’s a bit genuinely discomfiting akin to some of the reservations people have had with the way Brownstein used a certain defiantly weird city on her hit IFC show, but that’s just a passing observation. Portlandia, at its best, was funny and this song thrives in a paranoid urban world that exists at the corner of The Jam’s “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” and Jim Carroll Band’s “City Drops Into The Night” It moves from the ’70s to the ’80s as she exhorts her lover to “run away” before imploring them to an impassioned “run to her” that is quickly qualified by “…if you want to.”
“Favorite Neighbor” marks a bit of a turn for the album as its lyrics become more evasive, as a rant against a secret manipulator is delivered over a frantic beat. It’s a musical attitude redolent of Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out days, but with a Cars-esque keyboard. “Tomorrow’s Grave” takes a practically prog-rock stance–hardly a new take from them as a lot of their early-to-mid Aughts output had a heavy dose of it.
The one-minute (plus) psychedelic nugget “No Knives” (“we’re here to serve you dinner without using any knives) perfectly sets up (in a Mark Antony in Julius Caesar manner) the album’s most cutting track. “Complex Female Characters” (“I like those complex female characters but I want my women to go down easy”) delves into the sort of creature. The target is presumably male, but as a male writing this review, I will stop short of that presumption. who believes their understanding of the female character is “evolved,” never once realizing they are at the heart of the problem.
It’s a reaction to someone who will go out of their way to expound about, say, revering the resiliency of Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown. When in a relationship with an actual living woman, they demand simplicity. They expect their lover to never pierce their fragile ego. The sleazy narrator revels in a lover’s insecurity, counting on it. (“You’re too much of a woman now” “you’re not enough of a woman now” “you’re not a real woman now”) When the song devolves into the creepy mental kidnapper repeated primal scream of “you can’t escape my imagination,” it’s jarring as it should be.
And Sleater-Kinney wraps up the therapy session on an absolutely inspirational note on “Bring Mercy.” At its heart, it’s an indie rock “Wake Up Everybody.” As with that song, some of the lines handling specifics would be trite in the wrong hands (I’m looking directly at you “how do we live divided, modern enemies”). Part of why it skirts that pitfall has to do with the artist having already built our trust. It’s also that the song does address the despair that creeps in, as well as swirtly, but brutally admonishing those whose activism is about collecting stories or appeasing their own guilt (“You wanna provе I’m wrong/You wanna prove you’re right/You wanna tell your story ’round thе campfire light/But when tomorrow comes and I’m still next door/How you gonna go ’bout your day once more?”) However, the tone of the song, even as it impores “bring mercy, bring hope,” belies the truth that these are just words and it will require an almost unfathomable amount of work to get where we need to go. And as is a recurring theme of this whole album, we have to come to terms with the fact we may never get there. We must embrace that there will be struggle.
What’s most striking about “Bring Mercy” is that it may be the closest that Sleater-Kinney have ever come to writing a pure pop song. With impassioned vocals over a gently melodic organ and guitars backdrop, the track is an absolute earworm. That the vocals are deep in the cut at times oddly adds to the appeal. In any case, if this is an indication of Sleater-Kinney’s rebirth on an entirely new musical journey, a declaration of where they are in 2021 and beyond, then I’m giddy for the next chapters of a band that has been around seemingly forever.
VIDEO: Sleater-Kinney “Worry With You”
By the way, I’ve continually felt compelled to type Path TO Wellness instead of Path OF Wellness. It’s not coincidental. There’s something darker and more profound (if at a dimestore level) to my lapses. A path to wellness implies it’s a destination that can be reached and if you lay down some sort of whatever step plan, it can be achieved. In that philosophical universe, happiness exists. However, this is a toxic delusion as it is destined to come crashing down when “perfection” reveals the slightest flaw. In the real world wellness is a journey with both no end and a most definite and final end, and Sleater-Kinney’s latest record reflects that. Even as the upbeat message of “Bring Mercy” fades to black, there’s clearly still work to be done.
To call Path of Wellness unfinished is a compliment. It’s a glorious and chaotic ride that left me giddy and overstimulated. All the analysis above are my own interpretations. I’m 100% sure Carrie and Corin would call at least some of them crap. And that’s part of the point. Path of Wellness is an album that guides the listener into questioning their own existence as the band ponders their own and after all, isn’t that the path of good art.
Further, Path of Wellness makes the case for album as an artform that is very much alive. It’s not an easy record–it asks a lot from you as a listener. But it rewards your engagement, and it’s easily their most compelling since The Woods if not their best.
Hopefully, unlike The Woods, it will not turn out to be the prologue to a break and we won’t have to wait a decade to see where Sleater-Kinney’s next journey takes them.