REVIEW: ‘Path of Wellness’: An Encapsulation Of Everything That Makes Sleater-Kinney Great

After releasing ‘The Woods’ in 2005 – what most assumed was the band’s swan song, and what many still view as their magnum opus – Sleater-Kinney returned a decade later with ‘No Cities to Love’, which was followed by the opinion-splitting, St. Vincent produced ‘The Centre Won’t Hold’. ‘Path of Wellness’ notably is their first album written and recorded after the departure of legendary drummer Janet Weiss; who cited the incredible closeness of the now-duo (who once dated) as failing to leave sufficient space for her in the band.

Even without listening to ‘Wellness’ it would be easy to dismiss as the work of two heritage artists whose best work is long behind them: the loss of Weiss undoubtedly leaves an unfilled void for the remaining duo and one half of said duo now seems to be a more acclaimed writer and actor than a singer and songwriter.

Yet ‘Wellness’ is instead a roaring success: with great observations that allude to our shared lockdown reality set to great instrumentation, ‘Path of Wellness’ is an encapsulation of everything that makes Sleater-Kinney great: their lyrics remain arresting, their voices unmistakeable and the instrumentation is as wild as ever. It’s also perhaps the band’s most accessible work; making it a perfect introduction to the band for new listeners.

Lead single ‘Worry With You’ is the lynchpin of the LP. Featuring the catchiest chorus of the album, the track represents the quintessential lockdown experience of being inescapably close to a roommate or partner 24/7. Accompanied with a music video featuring two women living together in uncomfortable closeness; with all the furniture being slightly too small and slightly too close, the song is an ode to staying with someone through thick and thin (“If I’m gonna fuck up / I’m gonna fuck up with you”).

‘High in The Grass’ is another highlight, a quietly ominous, folk-rock anthem about the fleeting nature of youth and life in general and about not knowing a good thing is about to end – something that resonates with everyone during lockdown. At once, it is a hedonistic exploration of joy: “The spring night came alive and we lost our mind” the duo sing immediately after a head-banging beat drop, and a dystopian, end-of-times tale: “We cannot hear the chimes when it rings midnight / We can’t imagine what we will lose”.

‘Method’ – the third and final pre-release single – is a great, multi-dimensional encapsulation of crawling up the walls. In it’s final half, the song cascades into chaos; the narrator gets impatient (“Could you be a little sweeter, maybe / I’m not asking you to smile / You’re not a fucking child”) and their thoughts begin to spiral uncontrollably: “I’m singing about love / And it sounds like hate”, the duo sing, soon they start breathlessly listing their faults: “I’m so late / I’m late to the party, I’m late to the game / I’m to your heart” before spluttering “I’m going insane”

While, the instrumentation may disguise it at first, ‘Path of Wellness’ is Sleater-Kinney’s darkest album to date; ‘Bring Mercy’ is a no-holds-barred examination of American ruin (“How did we lose our city? / Rifles running through our streets / Dirty with an illness / Dirty from our deeds”). ‘Tomorrow’s Grave’ meanwhile is a mysterious and foreboding track cantered around death (“Today a home and tomorrow a grave”). “I felt my shape begin to fade and blur” the narrator sings, unclear if she’s referring to a dream or reality.

‘Path of Wellness’ is astutely political, rarely being overly on-the-nose. ‘No Knives’, the album’s shortest track, is a commentary on how women are expected to be subservient without ever showing resistance or sharp edges: “we’re here to serve you dinner / Without using any knives”. Album highlight ‘Complex Female Characters’ meanwhile is a takedown of the male gaze (“Well, I like those complex female characters / But I want my women to go down easy”).

However, while some of the men in the duo’s life may want them to “go down easy”, ‘Path of Wellness’ is testament to why they’re right not to; over two-and-a-half decades since their debut, the duo sound as vital as ever; continuing to refine their skills, commentate on current times with startling precision and, they’re still full of surprises – no small feat for a band ten albums in.

Score: 7.9

Best Tracks: ‘Worry With You’, ‘High In The Grass’, ‘Method’, ‘Complex Female Characters’

Worst Track: ‘Path of Wellness’

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