Compared to the hysteria that anticipated Sleater-Kinney’s last album, the taut, St Vincent-produced The Center Won’t Hold, the announcement and release of Path of Wellness has been a relatively low-key affair. Beyond a couple of (mediocre) singles, there’s been very little fanfare for the first album Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker have made as a two-piece, powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss having departed the band due to a creative gulf that opened up during the creation of their previous record. It’d be unfair and simplistic to say that one can hear her absence on this album, but this is certainly a changed Sleater-Kinney – not necessarily for the better.
The Center Won’t Hold was an ambitious sidestep for Sleater-Kinney, Annie Clark’s trademark uncanny-valley production casting the band’s twitchy rhythms and belted melodies in a sympathetically industrial light. Path of Wellness almost seems like a reaction to that technological highpoint, a more rough-and-tumble affair that strips away the exacting production in pursuit of something more intimate. It’s a perfectly compelling idea from this ever-evolving band, if a relatively familiar narrative; it also doesn’t really work.
All the right ingredients are here: Tucker’s astonishing vocals are in full attendance, her every line delivered with a gale-force vibrato that’s unrivalled in modern rock; Brownstein’s guitar playing is typically inventive and mischievous, pirouetting through the syncopations of each instrumental arrangement with Maradona-like grace and humour; lyrically, they’re as sharp as ever, heartstring-tugging one moment, cutting the next. So what’s the problem?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but it feels like there’s a certain amount of nuance missing here, a lack of self-editorial rigour. Sleater-Kinney have always been prone to a little knee-sliding rockism, but couched within songs of the quality and subtlety they’re capable of writing, it’s fun to indulge them. Yet on Path of Wellness, it’s a bigger ask, mainly because there’s so much more of that stuff thrown into each track. ‘Worry With You’’s slinky verse is undermined by the weirdly Britpop-y arpeggios of the chorus, before a dub delay rattles off a snare apropos of absolutely nothing; ‘Down The Line’ features a great, flickering intro riff, but ends up settling into a sub-AC/DC blues-rock dirge with a hollow half-time coda; ‘Tomorrow’s Grave’ aims for epic scale, but is smothered by airless, heavy-handed production; the platitude-filled ‘Mercy’ is just naff. At very few points do we hear a melody strong enough or a line incisive enough to cut through the thicket of classic rock tropes and muddy arrangements and take us somewhere genuinely thrilling.
It’s frustrating, because at their best, Sleater-Kinney are more or less untouchable. This isn’t their best, but knowing them, they’ll be moving swiftly onto something new soon enough anyway; even taking the weaknesses of Path of Wellness into account, that’s still something to get excited about.
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