There’s a lot to like about the 10th studio album from veteran riot grrrls, Sleater-Kinney. These days, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker work as a duo. They wrote and produced the whole thing themselves this time, drafting in various local musicians from their hometown of Portland to play the drum parts and additional instruments.
Lyrically, Path of Wellness deals with recovery. The clue’s in the title. Whether that’s from lockdown blues, the fallout from parting ways with their drummer of over 15 years in 2019, personal issues, or perhaps all three; its interesting themes and unexpectedly poppy highlights grabbed my attention.
Brisk title track, ‘Path of Wellness’, dives immediately into self-aware therapy soundbites such as ‘Do I seek approval?’ and ‘You can never love me enough’. You can almost feel the anxiety in the verses’ spare percussive arrangement. This is followed by the grungier tones of ‘High in the Grass’, which thankfully chills out a bit and lets its hair down for a mosh in the chorus.
First single, ‘Worry with You’, had wormed its way into my consciousness without my knowledge: when I listened I already knew it from the radio. It’s definitely a grower. Straight after comes latest single ‘Method’, which deals with the frustrations of a late-blooming relationship. It’s the most melodic track on the album and had me singing along pretty quickly. I could easily see the sunny strains of its chorus becoming a festival favourite.
As in life, the Path of Wellness has some downturns, suffering from a somewhat lacklustre middle section. ‘Shadow Town’ starts off rather weakly in a bluesy fashion before redeeming itself by bursting into a driving, rocky chorus. The short and sharp ‘Favorite Neighbour’ is much better, with a fantastic post-punk rhythm and snarling vocal.
‘Tomorrow’s Grave’ is a bombastic, Black Sabbath style dirge full of dark thoughts. ‘Well, now I’m wiser, now I understand / I’m the drought, I am the barren land’. It could be interpreted as a downward spiral toward the rock-bottom of the next song, the seriously creepy ‘No Knives’. At 1:15 it’s mercifully short, but its unhinged refrain of ‘We’re here to serve you dinner / Without using any knives’ has a distinct Nurse Ratched vibe. I can’t decide whether the fact that it managed to give me the heebie-jeebies means it’s a successful artistic endeavour, or that it would have been better left in its creators’ nightmares. If the point of the album is therapy then I suppose it’s better to share…
‘Complex Female Characters’ is the only song of the album’s second half to keep popping into my head. ‘I like my complex female characters but I / I like my women to go down easy’, whines Brownstein, in a pastiche of your everyday fake woke guy. Clearly, the lyricist has had enough of being pinned into a corner by hypocritical male expectations in the music industry. ‘You’re too much of a woman now / You’re not enough of a woman now,’ urges the character, finally ending with a warning outro: ‘You can’t escape my imagination’, which is really depressing but probably true.
At least the album ends on a hopeful note with the more straightforwardly rocky ‘Down The Line’ and ‘Bring Mercy’. The final track leaves us with a sound piece of advice: ‘Got nothing without hope / Keep vision alive with the heroes you know’. Despite its ups and downs, overall Path of Wellness is well written, slickly performed, and a worthwhile journey.
Words by Anne-Marie Sims