Over the course of 10 albums, Sleater-Kinney have unearthed constant newness. Stick on any song by the Olympia-formed band, and you can clearly hear the threads linking it to a particular era – from the agitated rage of 1997’s ‘Dig Me Out’ to the expansive and abstract ‘The Woods’ in 2005, everything they do seems to belong to a distinct musical world. And tying all of this together is the band’s distinctive voice, which taps into the unease and messiness of the present.
Whether they’re dreaming of breaking free of intangible outlines (2015’s ‘No Cities To Love’) or examining a fear-riddled post 9/11 world through the lens of motherhood and personal stories (‘One Beat’, 2002), Sleater-Kinney are adept at holding up a mirror to the present. Often, we turn to music because we are looking for an artist who can make some sense of the incomprehensible tangle inside our heads. Time and time again, Sleater-Kinney perform this magical sleight-of-hand that few artists can manage – they find words for humanity in all of its flawed chaos. Digging out the meaning within each of their records to date feels like solving a satisfying puzzle.
In what seems to be a deliberate stylistic choice, the band’s new album ‘Path of Wellness’ – their first since the sudden departure of former drummer Janet Weiss – takes a different approach, and is plain-speaking and direct. Though it contains hints (namely, a handful of synths) of their most recent work with St. Vincent, who produced their last album, 2019’s ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, it sits closest to their 1999 record ‘The Hot Rock’ and ‘One Beat’ sonically – combining spiny, agitated moodiness with a propulsive rage. While these two records tackled the political through an introspective, personal lens, ‘Path of Wellness’ looks firmly outward.
Often, it feels more on-the-nose than a well-aimed splatter of paint. ‘Complex Female Characters’ sees Carrie Brownstein hamming it up with a snarl, and mimicking a misogynist: her narrator gladly devours fully formed fictional women, but in his own life, he prefers them to “go down easy” and “take it easy on me”. “You’re too much of a woman, you’re not enough of a woman now…” Brownstein and Corin Tucker chant in unison. Their rage at the double standards imposed on women is palpable.
On ‘Method’ Brownstein’s clipped yelping delivery returns for a stream-of-consciousness tirade: “I’m singin’ ‘bout lurve / I’m singing about lurve / And it’s always coming out like hate”. Shooting for lyrical directness, the band often end up landing on vague platitudes instead. ‘No Knives’ – a one minute, 16 second interlude – drags out the image of serving up dinner with an incomplete cutlery set for approximately one minute longer than necessary. It seems to be a metaphor aimed at artists who only offer “security” and “consistency” – it’s just not a very effective one.
The record also suffers from over-saturation at times. The title track mostly sounds like the cast of the percussive musical STOMP trying to run for the last train after a chaotic night out on the piss. When the cacophonous cowbells subside for a second, there’s groove buried within, and then the rumbling dustbins return – it feels messy and unfocused.
Sleater-Kinney’s approach makes more sense on ‘Worry With You’, as spiky guitars brush up alongside plodding bass, doubled-up vocals, and an acidy breakdown. The song speaks to the isolation of the last year, as the band unearth hope in the hopelessness. “If I’m gonna fuck up / I’m gonna fuck up with you,” Brownstein insists.
‘Bring Mercy’, meanwhile, feels one of the record’s most heartfelt moments: “Got nothing without hope,” Tucker pleads. And in a track filled with artful empty space, Tucker’s vocals also shine on ‘High in the Grass’, soaring up the octaves as she dreams of the before-times. Its handling of its pandemic-centric subject matter feels a little heavy-handed, however, reminiscing on carefree springs spent taking joy for granted. “We live just a moment long, we leave before the gig is done,” they sing, later adding: “We can’t imagine what we will lose”.
And this is ‘Path of Wellness’’ biggest pitfall – what could’ve been a savvy dissection of seeking out connection during a surreal year instead see them go straight down the line.
Release date: June 11
Release label: Mom + Pop