Contrary to popular belief, there do exist albums that just feel a little thankless to listen to; the sort of works that are clearly derived from a position of intellect and skill, peppered with personal statements and clever musical hooks, but lack any sense of tension and attitude. The term ‘pretentious’ is always a fairly flat (and ultimately meaningless) criticism, but the best comparisons to these records is not that of the ‘mid-tier’ genre work, and moreso the strangely abstract, yet characterless, painting; it seems to have a message, but it just doesn’t convey itself past its own existence. Case in point: Sleater-Kinney‘s previous album The Center Won’t Hold. Not only did they have the displeasure of finding themselves confronted with fan base rejection to what was meant to be their brave reinvention as an avant-pop trio, they also lost drummer Janet Weiss in the process of making it.
With the split well documented (if still quite unclear, as Weiss’ assessment of being sidelined and excluded was rejected by Brownstein and Tucker), among fans there seemed to be a willing distrust in the remaining duo to progress as an effective unit. But, even considering that Weiss was considered by many as modern rock’s best drummer, it seems a little harsh to write off what is ultimately one of the most iconic all-female rock bands based on one exit and a stylistic detour.
So, maybe it’s unfair to argue that a lot depends on Path of Wellness, the group’s 10th album and the first that they produced themselves since their debut. Sadly, even if totally removed from all expectations and the shadow of the previous drama, it’s clear that the Sleater-Kinney of 2021 have lost… something. Call it heart, call it ‘the magic’, call it instinctively sharp punk drums – something’s missing here.
Following the three pre-released singles “High in the Grass”, “Method” and “Worry With You”, it was already established that Brownstein and Tucker had aimed for a clean cut indie-rock sound on Path of Wellness, abandoning the angular pop aesthetics of its predecessor, but also the heavy punk sound associated with their post-2000 output. It didn’t matter much – the three songs were lean and memorable, embracing the lead vocal performances and peppering the guitar lines with nostalgia for 90s alt-rock.
What comes as a bit of a let down is the realization that they’re easily the album’s standout moments. Bookended by opener “Path of Wellness”, which sounds like a Deerhoof outtake (ca. 2007) and the murky “Shadow Town”, a melancholic, mid-tempo, organ led dirge that never takes off, they seem out of place and belonging to a more exciting – and excited – project. Things get a little more energetic with the dry “Favorite Neighbor”, which harkens back to the band’s classic songwriting style. Sadly, they can’t maintain this short moment of levity, as the album’s second half deteriorates into an all-out mess.
There’s “Tomorrow’s Grave”, which starts out as a distorted hard rocker, but then disintegrates into a sort of Black Sabbath pastiche. It feels like ideas tacked on to each other, lacking focus and direction. “No Knives” is a strangely awkward one minute detour – not lasting enough to be offensive, but feeling almost blatantly obvious in its simplistic messaging and lack of impact. The ballad “Complex Female Characters” takes on the fake feminism found with reactionary YouTubers who complain about strong political statements by actresses or non-conformist roles. Sadly, the track’s spare soundscape doesn’t rival the message, with even an impassioned solo and angry chants unable to rise above pleasant. Equally inoffensive, “Down the Line” flows by and is over without leaving a mark – ironically, the meditation on the Coronavirus crisis seems as uneventful as a locked down summer. It is possible this is a conceptual choice – reflecting on an era marked by both anxiety and boring isolation – but in the end it’s never as charismatic as it could have been.
It’s baffling: the wild beat that used to characterize Sleater-Kinney, along with their seemingly immortal strength and brilliant attitude, is just… gone. In its place is a band that all too often relies on loud climaxes to salvage often bland mid-tempo tracks. The difference is so harsh, jumping from Path of Wellness back to Dig Me Out feels like being struck by lightning, skipping forward to The Woods like being tossed into a mosh pit. It even manages to be outdone by the unloved The Center Won’t Hold, whose sonic ideas and pop melodies at least delivered an edge that made it unique in the context of the band’s history.
What is unfortunate when musicians as brilliant and iconic as Brownstein and Tucker release a work that feels this lacklustre, is that there seems to be no forward. Yeah, it’s not bad music per se, but lacking Weiss’ sharp drumming and the virtuoso guitar work the two are so good at, there’s not much left of what made Sleater-Kinney exciting. And hey, maybe it was the bland isolation of the lockdown that led Path of Wellness astray, but by the time the organ heavy “Bring Mercy” fades out, this path feels like the end of a journey.