Having been inspired by acts such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, as well as earlier punk acts like The Slits, X-Ray Spex, and Siouxsie and the Banshees; from their formation in 1994, Sleater-Kinney have been a pillar of the riot grrrl movement; a movement which sought to inspire women and queer people to make music that was true to their lived experiences by utilising D.I.Y. punk aggression and musicality. However, their latest record, Path of Wellness, shreds the remnants of their riot grrrl background in favour of music in the vein of looping, clean, experimental alternative rock, akin to, say, PJ Harvey or St. Vincent.
Of course, anyone who has been following Sleater-Kinney’s fairly extensive discography will know that this is more of a natural evolution of the band’s music rather than a sudden metamorphosis. Even from their self-titled debut album in 1995, which featured a lot of the hallmarks of the riot grrrl genre, there was a sense of wanting to expand beyond its constraints. Each song featured more skill and experimentation than was typical for the genre. As the band progressed, the more and more they experimented and went beyond the limitations of the riot grrrl genre and any genre.
Still, hitherto, all of their albums have managed to include the dissatisfied yelling and fast-paced tempo from their musical roots to at least some extent, but that is noticeably absent on this release. This is not to imply that Path of Wellness is a mellow album, not at all. It just eschews the Kathleen Hanna-esque yelling and hardcore measures as means of expressing anger and frustration in favour of understated sardonicism, pointed directness, and bitterness, akin to, say, Elvis Costello. One method is not inherently better than the other at expressing these emotions, as many artists have utilised both to great effect. However, Sleater-Kinney have proven that they are more-than-capable at utilising either method.
The lack of reminiscing in the music of yesteryear may be a conscious decision due to this being the first album released since the departure of long-time drummer Janet Weiss. While Weiss was not a founding member of the band, she had served as the band’s longest-running drummer. Having joined in 1996, she stayed until the band’s disbandment in 2006 and returned for their reunion in 2014 before leaving in 2019. The lyrics to the sweet and sinister “No Knives” seem to reflect on making an album that will be enjoyable to the band’s fans while also acknowledging the lack of their expected pugnacity.
For what it’s worth, Path of Wellness does succeed in being a really good Sleater-Kinney album. It probably won’t be considered one of the best in their overall discography, however. The first four and final three songs on the album make for memorable and catchy avant-pop tunes, particularly “Worry With You”, “Down The Line”, and “Bring Mercy”. Unfortunately, it is the four songs in the middle that bring the album down.
None of these four songs are bad by any means, and certainly, none of them feels like filler for the album. On the contrary, they all share the same sincerity and lilting effort as the other songs on the album. The issue is simply that the songs from the foundational level of songwriting just lacks the oomph of the other songs, but without those four songs, the album is in the strange position of having too many songs for an EP, but not enough for a full album.
Path of Wellness is a very confident album. In their (albeit not consecutively) near-30 years as a band, this is Sleater-Kinney’s first time self-producing an entire album. It is clear of the direction that the band want to go towards, having worked with St. Vincent as the producer on their previous album, 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold. It is confident in not only committing to that direction without being shackled by fans’ expectations but also of the band being the captains of the ship in stirring it in that direction, which they do tremendously. This album’s production is on par with the previous two albums released since their reunion, the other of which was produced by the well-seasoned John Goodmanson.
Being mostly euphonious and packed with both melancholy and conviction, Path of Wellness is worth checking out. The highs are high, and the lows are never that low. Sleater-Kinney are an act that deserves respect and attention but understand that enjoying this album is not an exact indicator of what your feelings towards a good portion of their discography may be.