There’s no “loud-quiet-loud” in Sleater-Kinney’s world. Usually, there’s no “quiet,” period. As Carrie Brownstein wrote in her 2015 memoir, “I can listen to soft songs, but I can’t play them. Even Sleater-Kinney’s lighter songs feel thorny or brittle—they aren’t gentle, and they make horrible background music.”
Path of Wellness, the Northwest band’s 10th album (and yeah, let’s get this out of the way, their first as a duo), doesn’t end this tradition exactly. There are no power ballads, no string codas. But Path—even more than 2019’s polarizing The Center Won’t Hold—does present a gentler, groovier Sleater-Kinney, and this one kicks off with the breeziest music of the band’s 25-year career. The title track doesn’t roar to life à la “Dig Me Out” or “The Fox” so much as it stutters and clangs with a clattering, polyrhythmic groove, which becomes the backbeat for Corin Tucker’s double-tracked pleas: “Drain me of my toxins / Drain me of the life I lead,” she sings. Later comes the coy refrain: “I’m on a path of wellness.”
It’s the first hint that Path of Wellness is an album rooted in a yearning for love and stability during wildly unstable times—and that the two remaining members of Sleater-Kinney are not aiming to replicate the sound they had with ex-drummer Janet Weiss, whose 2019 departure cast a heavy shadow over the new record. Path of Wellness is not quite a consistently triumphant reinvention, but it’s far from the dud some Weiss loyalists anticipated. What results is a very good, occasionally uneven effort that finds Tucker and Brownstein dabbling in sugary pop, ’70s rock sleaze, and even some R&B swagger while replacing Weiss with a handful of Portland-area musicians.
For Tucker and Brownstein, the recording process provided a respite last summer as their home city of Portland was shaken by violent clashes between protesters and police, devastating wildfires and of course the unending pandemic. At times, there’s a curious disconnect between the music—breezy riffs that were written pre-pandemic and intended for an outdoor summer tour in 2020—and the lyrics, which, as Tucker put it, “got finished when things were like, ‘Oh, no! You’re definitely not going on tour.’”
Lead single “Worry with You” could be a song about riding out quarantine apart from a loved one, but its halfhearted new wave peppiness feels limp, like a B-52s homage that doesn’t quite commit. The contradiction works better on “Down the Line,” which marinates in the collective loss of last year: “It’s not the summer we were promised / It’s the summer we deserve,” sings Brownstein over roiling guitar tones inspired by a Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen binge.
Few albums are sequenced in chronological order, but Path of Wellness has a striking progression from the jaunty, light exuberance of its opening tracks (check “High in the Grass,” with Tucker trying on a ’60s soul affect) to the post-pandemic reckoning of its back half. Sleater-Kinney sharpen their knack for cultural critique on the underdeveloped “No Knives” and the caustic “Complex Female Characters,” which takes a dig at faux-feminist literary jerks, before plunging into grief and social unrest on “Down the Line” and the stirring, Tucker-led “Bring Mercy.”
These songs won’t be of much use to fans pining for another Dig Me Out or No Cities to Love, which is fine. Tucker and Brownstein have made it abundantly clear they’re not interested in pandering to those fans. On this record, Tucker sings at a reasonable volume more than she wails, Weiss’ absence is keenly felt, and the band’s once-minimalist sound is filled out with fluttering keyboards and even some honest-to-God basslines. (Or at least guitars that sound an awful lot like basses.) It all sounds good, if occasionally a little too restrained.
But what Path of Wellness lacks in sonic urgency, it makes up for with a vintage classic-rock swagger that livens up the material considerably. The band has never done anything quite like “High in the Grass,” with its flower-power swoon. And “Method,” which is almost certainly the best thing on here, finds Brownstein zeroing in on a bluesy sleaze-rock aura pitched somewhere between Thin Lizzy and late-’70s Fleetwood Mac. Slithery keyboard licks dart around the edges of the mix, and Brownstein commits to the vibe, lazily drawling her vocals, playing with her intonations, lingering on the words “love” and “hate” like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. It doesn’t kick ass the way any of Sleater-Kinney’s previous songs kick ass, but it kicks ass just the same.
Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, Vulture and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek. His first book was published in November 2020.