When you get down to it, it’s always been Corin and Carrie and their guitars. Sleater-Kinney has seen drummers come and go, though none more notable than Janet Weiss, whose 24-year tenure with the band ended just before the release of its ninth record, The Center Won’t Hold. That album marked a new evolution in Sleater-Kinney’s sound, one so driven by producer Annie Clark’s brushed-steel sensibilities that it split fans and critics over whether the Portland rockers’ drive towards musical reinvention had finally backfired. But if Tucker and Brownstein are sorry for causing such a ruckus, they aren’t showing it on their tenth record, Path Of Wellness.
One could read a bit of a mea culpa into the fact that Path Of Wellness was self-produced, but that notion dissipates with the clanking industrial percussion that opens the title song. Taking full control over the recording process (Tucker and Brownstein perform as a duo on this record, with a cast of Portland musicians playing backup) seems to have strengthened Sleater-Kinney’s experimental resolve. And the songwriting on Path Of Wellness emphasizes eclectic, improvisational compositions over tight three-minute anthems.
This could mean an eccentric snippet, like the minute-long lark “No Knives.” More often, it means loose, jazzy performances on longer, more varied songs: Take Tucker’s light-headed soprano on the dreamy “High In The Grass,” or the shaggy “Method,” where Brownstein offers a stream of consciousness about love and hate over Tucker’s Steely Dan-esque guitar. The lyrics, while still a combination of earnest pleas for love and understanding and pointed political commentary, are also a site for exploration as Brownstein tries on the character of a smarmy male “ally” on “Complex Female Character.” “I like those complex female characters, but I want my women to go down easy,” she sings.
Speaking of Steely Dan, while the dominant musical mode on Path Of Wellness is spiky, deconstructed post-punk, the record also re-introduces the warm, organic hard-rock sound that dominated 2005's The Woods. The noodling, sun-soaked ’70s influence on “Shadow Town” is palpable, enhancing the prog of it all with a Fender Rhodes electric piano that also lends a yacht-rock sheen to closer “Bring Mercy.” A tidal wave of guitar crashes against synths that wail like sirens on the triumphant “Favorite Neighbor,” and “Tomorrow’s Grave” turns up the volume even louder, soaking its feet in heavy-metal sludge. Don’t mistake exhilarating clamor for punk urgency, however; some of these songs are punctuated with the fist-pumping choruses fans expect, and some are not.
Given that none of the tracks on Path Of Wellness are eager to commit to any one style, the blend of influences almost feels like a conversation between Tucker, who named her son after the Marshall Tucker Band, and Brownstein, whose creative partnership with Clark continues to bear weird fruit. The collaboration appears to be harmonious, particularly on lead single “Worry With You,” whose cocksure stride blends with the giddy singalong chant “let’s get lost, baby, and take a wrong turn,” creating an energy that recalls the band’s adventurous early years. But decades have passed in the interim, which means that Sleater-Kinney comes to Path Of Wellness with both the benefit of experience and the weight of expectations.
Although Sleater-Kinney can seem like a shark—always swimming or else it will die—there’s a certain defiance to Path Of Wisdom’s freewheeling attitude, a refusal to give the people exactly what they want. Weiss’ muscular drumming helped define Sleater-Kinney’s sound, and while Tucker’s big fuzz rushes in to fill some of the space Weiss leaves behind, the duo aren’t trying to recapture something that was lost. They’ve been around too long for that. Instead, it seems that they’re turning their gazes inward, to see how they can still surprise each other, the past be damned. Because, when you get down to it, it’s always been Corin and Carrie and their guitars.