The post-reunion phase of a rock band’s lifespan can be a strange period to navigate. Provided the fans are on board, it is often a chance to make the sort of serious bucks that are out of reach during a band’s first flush. But a reunion often lays out an unwritten contract of expectations between band and fans; we want the nostalgia, we want the hits, do it this way, not that way.
In this respect, Sleater-Kinney have not entirely followed the letter of the deal. Their second post-reunion album, 2019’s St Vincent-produced The Center Won’t Hold, felt like a makeover of sorts, the roughness and rage of the band’s early days subsumed in a glossy, radio-friendly production that divided critics and fans alike. But the real shock came when, a month before the album’s release, drummer Janet Weiss announced she was leaving the band, citing Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s increasingly exclusive musical partnership: “I said, ‘Can you tell me if I am still a creative equal in the band?’ And they said no. So, I left.”
For a band often used as a byword for feminist solidarity, this sudden intrusion of personal animus came as a shock. But then, Sleater-Kinney have always been about kicking out against the expectations loaded on women. As Carrie Brownstein has it on Complex Female Characters, one of the standout tracks from their 10th album Path Of Wellness: “You’re too much of a woman now/You’re not enough of a woman now”. It’s that old story, so familiar to female musicians: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Path Of Wellness was written and recorded in the long, hot summer of 2020 in Portland, Oregon, with Brownstein and Tucker assisted by a host of local musicians. It is the first album that Sleater-Kinney have produced entirely by themselves, although that doesn’t mean a return to the raw riot-grrrl sound of old. On the contrary, there’s a full, rich quality to the record, which is thick with Wurlitzer and Rhodes, and often echoes various genres of a ’70s vintage – country and glam, funk and hard rock. The latter, in particular, powers some of the record’s best moments. High In The Grass is an exultant summertime anthem steeped in the histrionics of ’70s rock: “We lock when the pollen’s up/We love when the party’s on”. Wilder still is Tomorrow’s Grave, a knowing tribute to Black Sabbath that makes some entertaining rock theatre out of that band’s doom-laden clang.
As Path Of Wellness came together, the state of Oregon was in a strange flux, grappling with the pandemic, encroached on by wildfires, and gripped by protests against racial inequality that saw police suppressing crowds with batons and pepper spray. In places the album seems to address this explicitly. Favorite Neighbor is a righteous skewering of hypocrisy that accuses those “putting out fires/When your own house is burning”, while Bring Mercy finds Tucker singing, “How did we lose our city/Rifles running through our streets…”
Elsewhere, the turbulence outside seems to have brought out a reflective tone. The title track uses the language of self-help and self-care to interrogate personal insecurities, while the sleek, funky Worry With You addresses that feeling of anxiety when the shit
has hit the fan and the loved one you need is out of reach. Once upon a time, Sleater-Kinney records were righteous and declamatory. More often here, the tone is open and inquisitive, a band trying to find their bearings when the times are a-changin’.
In an interview about her departure from the band, Janet Weiss spoke of the tight relationship between Tucker and Brownstein: “I just think the two of them are so connected and they really agree on almost everything.” Listening to this new clutch of songs, you’re often reminded of this. Even as Path Of Wellness grapples with the world outside, its songs often speak the intimate language of a private conversation – the words of one friend, or lover, to another.
Fans who listened to The Center Won’t Hold and baulked at its lack of righteous rage might also find moments here wanting. But Path Of Wellness proves Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein haven’t forgotten the empowering, life-giving qualities of rock’n’roll fun. Sleater-Kinney are turning their reunion years into a reaffirmation of the importance of support and solidarity on a private, personal level. As they sing on album closer Bring Mercy: “If it’s coming for us, darlin’/Take my hand and dance me down the line”.