Sleater-Kinney’s last album, The Center Won’t Hold, was an indie rock Hindenburg: in an attempt to “evolve” their sound, the band completely lost sight of their own strengths, making a series of hollowed-out dated pop songs instead of their usual visceral, thrilling guitar rock. While it got inexplicably positive reviews (which made me question the kind of favor-trading that goes into other music websites), the fact that beloved drummer Janet Weiss left the band like she was fleeing a burning building spoke volumes. Their new album, Path of Wellness, represents a different kind of disappointment: while it isn’t a fall-on-your-face embarrassment that elicits grimaces from the first note, it signifies Sleater-Kinney becoming Just Another Band that is going to hang around and churn out listenable but not particularly memorable songs while having little left to say.
This time, there aren’t many complaints to be had about the style or production. Sleater-Kinney almost sound like Sleater-Kinney again, and this album has some catchy songs with vocals and guitar parts from Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker that aren’t too different from the band’s glory days. But lurking underneath the whole album is the sense that something is missing. The obvious answer is Janet’s drumming, but I think it goes deeper than that: the band’s DNA feels different. They’re missing that sense of urgency that used to define them. Sleater-Kinney explored a variety of sounds, so some fans may disagree, but I loved their songs when they felt like life-or-death affairs, full of stridency and a clear sense of purpose. Songs like “Far Away” and “Sympathy” from One Beat had an uncomfortable level of intensity, and I admired the band for making songs that could knock over the listener, not just due to volume but due to the unguarded emotion of the members.
That was when Sleater-Kinney were a band with a chip on their shoulder; now their songs are more mature and refined, trading in that anarchic energy for more subtle, middle of the road arrangements. Which doesn’t sound bad on paper, except that I never really enjoyed Sleater-Kinney for their subtlety or restraint. It makes sense that Brownstein and Tucker wouldn’t have that same energy in their 40s as they did in their 20s, so they’re right not to force it. But it doesn’t change that the end result on Path of Wellness is simply less dynamic and unique compared to the Sleater-Kinney I used to love.
This isn’t a popular view in the industry, but I think women in their 40s are capable of making good music and should be allowed to do it. The issue here is that Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics don’t really offer any special insight into their lives, and similar to The Center Won’t Hold, the uncharacteristically bland music puts a spotlight on the lack of substance in the songs. “Method” is a very catchy pop ditty, but it also is generic for this band’s standards, and Brownstein’s song-about-a-song lyrics (“I’m singing a song about love”) remind me of when I had a creative writing assignment due and in the absence of real ideas tried to write some meta writing-about-writing piece because it was “clever.” The words on “Complex Female Characters” seem like a shot at the band’s mostly non-existent critics, with Brownstein mocking men who love messy fictional characters but can’t handle the real thing. There’s an irony there, though, because nothing in these songs suggests that the members of S-K are particularly complex or interesting people anymore, since all the listener is getting from Brownstein are these sorts of thin-skinned meta-critiques or rote lyrics about love that anyone could write.
Brownstein is the source of most of my annoyance. I think a large part of why S-K feels “off” is that she has taken a more casual approach to the band, viewing it as a fun side project to do to aid her comedy and Hollywood ambitions. A 30-minute video on their YouTube channel that presents the album with a series of mediocre comedy skits featuring all of the best buds she’s made from Portlandia etc. does little to dissuade me from this belief. She can do what she wants, but I miss when this band was serious business and when the songs felt like they needed to exist and didn’t just settle for being listenable.
Tucker delivers the highlights again here, with a characteristically emotional vocal on “High in the Grass” and another strong turn on the closer “Bring Mercy.” Even though those still sound more like Corin Tucker Band songs than Sleater-Kinney, at least there is some heart and spirit in them compared to a lot of the rest of this album, which most people have probably forgotten about already at the time I’m finishing this post two weeks after its release. Whether you loved them or not, Sleater-Kinney were never a band that just faded into the background like this album does, which is what makes it a disappointment even if it’s a step in the right direction after The Center Won’t Hold. I’m holding this band to a higher standard than just being pleasant to listen to in the background while at work.