Sleater-Kinney’s Path of Wellness has an exciting beginning, but what a winding, tiring path it proves to be. Although not without merit or a handful of hits, the album begins to stagnate halfway through and never fully recovers. If Path of Wellness were instead an EP consisting of its best five songs, the record would be sensational; unfortunately, the album is dotted with tracks that feel out of place and repetitive, a tendency that blurs its high points and drags everything down.
This latest album from the iconic riot grrrl band is the first from its current lineup, which, after the departure of drummer Janet Weiss in 2019, now consists only of founders Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. Although it’s undeniably another rock addition, Sleater-Kinney’s latest album departs slightly from punk for a more alternative sound. Path of Wellness contains some successful experimentation with rhythm and percussion (fantastic in “Path of Wellness”) and relies more on groovy guitar riffs (note the catchy opening of lead single “Worry With You”) than the band’s past power chord dominated albums. The new sound is refreshing — until it’s not.
Sleater-Kinney exhausts all its new tricks in the first five tracks, then never shines as brightly again. Although “Complex Female Characters” and “Bring Mercy” stand out somewhat compared to their neighboring tracks, they have much less to offer than the album’s first half, and it’s far too little, too late to save the record as a whole.
There are few outstanding qualities in many of the songs; it’s hard to warrant listening to “Favorite Neighbor,” “Tomorrow’s Grave” or “Down the Line” when “High in the Grass,” “Worry With You” and “Method” all have catchier instrumentals, more impressive vocals and more meaningful lyrics. Besides one or two songs, the second half of Path of Wellness just isn’t very memorable at all. Sleater-Kinney seems to run out of ideas midway through the album and wears out its sound quickly, resulting in a lackluster, unsatisfactory finish.
A confusing addition to the album is “No Knives,” a folksy interlude just more than a minute in length. It is different in almost every respect from other tracks on the album, and its existence seems intentional but very misplaced. “No Knives” reflects poetic lyricism, but that is about its only notable characteristic. In the context of the album as a whole, “No Knives” makes little sense; it seems to want to offer listeners a break, a chance to catch their breath — but the underwhelming tracks that precede it render that unnecessary. “No Knives” is a prime example of the album’s weakest traits: It’s among the several tracks that feel misplaced or exhibit subpar style over even less substance.
Not all is lost, however, and the highlights of Path of Wellness are worth a listen. The guitar in the lead single, “Worry With You,” is some of the best from Sleater-Kinney’s recent history, and Tucker’s polarizing voice and singing style shine in melodic “High In the Grass.” Though overall quite different from what you’d expect from Sleater-Kinney, “Path of Wellness” has a fantastic instrumental bridge that offers listeners a chance to satisfy any urge for headbanging.
“Method” is catchy, sassy, and the lyrics contain clear rawness and vulnerability. Although it marks the beginning of the album’s descent, “Shadow Town” remains a worthy track with its mellow yet interesting bassline and earworm of a prechorus. These tracks prove that the band can do every part of what it needs to do well and is capable of successfully implementing experiments. It’s a shame that these characteristics don’t last, and Sleater-Kinney fails to bless the rest of the album with this new touch.
Path of Wellness certainly seems to start in the right direction but loses itself significantly. Despite its major shortcomings, however, there remains an indication that Sleater-Kinney is on the right track, slowly feeling its way through the dark — and there’s still hope that it finds its way again by its next release.