It can’t be a coincidence that the drums are the first thing we hear. Path Of Wellness, Sleater-Kinney’s new album, opens with some busy push-pull riffage and with percussion falling all over itself. We hear clings and clangs and shakers and glass bottles. We hear a big, funky polyrhythmic stew — the type of drums that Janet Weiss would never play. Weiss isn’t that type of drummer. She’s great, and she’s never ostentatious. She stays in the pocket, letting everything else in the song explode around her while holding the center. For their first album since Weiss left the band, Sleater-Kinney kick things off by letting the drums go wild. It’s so hard not to read so much into that decision.
The departure of Janet Weiss is one of the great feel-bad stories in the recent history of indie rock. Sleater-Kinney started without Weiss, and they made at least one classic without her. In the beginning, Sleater-Kinney was just ’90s Olympia scenesters Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, two friends who were once a couple, heading down to Australia to meet up with OG drummer Laura Macfarlane and then spending a few years piling into vans and crashing on couches while cranking out deep and furious punk rock. But when Weiss signed on, Sleater-Kinney became a unit and gained an identity. The trio went on an incredible run, then spent the better part of a decade on hiatus, and finally returned at full strength on the triumphant 2015 reunion album No Cities To Love. It was hugely exciting and gratifying to watch these three people come together. It was a severe bum-out to watch them break apart.
Carrie Brownstein reunited with Janet Weiss before she reunited with Corin Tucker. (That one Wild Flag album? Ruled.) On No Cities To Love, everyone seemed fully locked-in, on the same page. But just before the release of 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold, Weiss left the group, later saying that she no longer felt like an equal partner in the group. Then she got in a bad car accident. And then there was The Center Won’t Hold Itself. The album flirted with bright, flashy synthetic pop, and it’s got some joints, but it never really found its groove. It never really sounded like a Sleater-Kinney album.
Narrative can be a hard thing to escape. The absence of Weiss casts a huge shadow over Path Of Wellness, which Brownstein and Tucker recorded with the help of a bunch of different Portland musicians. There’s no replacement for Janet Weiss; three different drummers, including touring member Angie Boylan, play on the album. For those of us who love this band, it’s all too tempting to read certain lyrics as pointed messages to anyone is disappointed at how that whole thing went down. (There is, for instance, “No Knives,” a short song with no drums, where Brownstein sings, “We’re here to serve you dinner without using any knives.”) But that’s not fair to Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, two people whose lives have been intertwined for a very long time and who have made a lot of truly great music together, with and without Weiss. Their new album deserves to be heard as an album, not as a response to intra-band events.
Path Of Wellness is not a great album, but it’s a pretty good one. The bones of the band’s classic sound are there. The guitars wrap themselves around each other in ways that are both intuitive and unpredictable. The riffs are bright and sticky and propulsive. Corin Tucker’s voice is still a force of nature, and Carrie Brownstein’s hiccuping strut still makes for a powerful complement to that voice. But I haven’t yet had a goosebump moment with Path Of Wellness. That’s something I used to get from Sleater-Kinney records all the time. The guitars would surge up, or Corin Tucker would wail out a monster note, or all three voices would join together in joyous lockstep, and this band would feel like it was ready to swallow the world. Those moments just aren’t there on Path Of Wellness. Maybe I’ll hear them in these songs when I see Sleater-Kinney play them live; this wouldn’t be the first time that happened. Right now, though, I miss those moments.
Path Of Wellness, like The Center Won’t Hold before it, feels like an album split between Corin Tucker songs and Carrie Brownstein songs. I don’t know how they wrote the album, and maybe every track is a true collaboration. But the two members of the band used to sing over each other, their voices forming an overwhelming net. They sounded like they were singing to each other, or at each other. That’s gone now. Instead, the two of them take turns singing lead, and that leaves me feeling like something is missing.
Aesthetically, Path Of Wellness feels like a back-to-basics move. After the stylized gloss of The Center Won’t Hold, Tucker and Brownstein have produced themselves for the first time, and they’ve made something that sounds, more or less, like indie rock. A keyboard might bubble up every once in a long while, and there’s definitely some bass on the album, too. But this is mostly Sleater-Kinney returning to older sounds, especially to the relative restraint of 1999’s The Hot Rock. It’s not The Hot Rock, though.
For all its splintered hush, The Hot Rock was recognizably the work of a punk band. Path Of Wellness is not. Path Of Wellness also does not sound like the work of people who have their entire worlds at stake. There’s drive to the album, but there’s no desperation. This time around, Sleater-Kinney sound more laid-back, more content. It makes sense. Brownstein and Tucker have other things going on in their lives. Every band that lasts long enough eventually loses all sense of wild-eyed commitment. That doesn’t mean those bands lose their value.
There’s a lot of good stuff on Path Of Wellness. I like the way the single “Worry With You” shimmies and twists. On “Complex Female Characters,” Brownstein adapts the persona of an asshole who tries to make a show of how non-assholish he is: “I like those complex female characters, but I want my women to go down easy.” The guitars on “Shadow Town” loop around each other again and again, like two people in deep conversation. Closing track “Bring Mercy” is a beauty, and it’s the moment where Corin Tucker really catches the spirit. She sings about watching Portland, the city where she lives, turn into a place where right-wing authorities attack protesters, but she might also be offering a sidelong message to anyone who might be mad at her band: “You wanna prove I’m wrong you wanna prove you’re right/ You wanna tell your story round the campfire light/ But when tomorrow comes and I’m still next door/ How you gonna go about your day once more?”
Path Of Wellness feels like a grower, a softer and more subtle album. I won’t know for sure for a while, though. Sleater-Kinney didn’t make Path Of Wellness available to critics early — or, at least, not to this critic — so I’m processing this thing as the same time as everyone else is. This isn’t an album built to reveal itself on first impression, but first impression is all I have. My first impression is: Not bad! It’s not the disaster that I feared. It’s also not a triumph. But we already have plenty of Sleater-Kinney triumphs. If a pretty good album is what they have to offer this time, then I’ll take a pretty good album.
Path Of Wellness is out now on Mom + Pop.