Keith Richards once said: “There couldn’t be a Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts.” The implication being that Watts’ drumming is so crucial to The Rolling Stones’ sound, everything else would disintegrate if you were to remove him from the equation. A lot of people felt the same way about Sleater-Kinney, who had arguably the best rock drummer of the last 30 years in Janet Weiss—like Keith Moon, she made the drums sound like a lead instrument in the band, not just rhythmic support, so that imagining the band without her became impossible.
Well, the impossible has happened, and Path of Wellness really is the sound of Sleater-Kinney without their iconic drummer. Janet Weiss left the band shortly after the release of their controversial last album The Center Won’t Hold, in a move that many blamed on her being sidelined by producer Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), although as with all band splits the reality is probably much more complex.
So Path of Wellness enters the world as a product ready to be met with a fair amount of suspicion by a lot of Sleater-Kinney’s fans. Understandably so, not just because of Weiss’ departure but also because, well, The Center Won’t Hold really wasn’t all that good—not so much because of Clark’s production, which added some intriguing new elements to the band’s dynamic even if it made it feel a bit cold and lifeless, as the general paucity of memorable songs.
So several decades into their career and without their Charlie Watts, can Sleater-Kinney still be your Joey Ramone? Sure; just as Watts leaving The Rolling Stones at their peak would still have left them with two titans of music, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who undoubtedly would have carried on making great stuff, so Sleater-Kinney still has Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, two of the mightiest alt-rock talents of them all.
And their ability to bounce off each other to produce musical magic remains as indisputable as ever on Path of Wellness. They still have the knack for choruses that come rushing in like an unexpected yet euphoric wave: the best in show here is “High in the Grass,“ where guitar and vocals wrap around each other in an upward surge of emotional release that represents a classic piece of Sleater-Kinney exhilaration, one to match any of their best moments. But there are moments of pure excitement and release on nearly every song, such as when the lead guitar finally kicks in after nearly 2 minutes on the title track, or when an unexpected cheesy blast of synth heralds the chorus and punches it home all the harder in “Favorite Neighbor.“
This self-produced album, made during lockdown, seems to represent all of the built-up tension and release of the last year, with song structures following a formula of terse, spare verses centred around bass and drums played by various professionals brought in to replace Weiss, before kicking dramatically into higher gear with much more guitar-centric choruses. Most of the time when the chorus kicks in, it makes you realise “so that’s where the song was heading,“ after a minute or two of meandering that makes you fearful of a return to the lost focus of The Center Won’t Hold.
There is still some meandering that doesn’t lead anywhere: “Shadow Town,“ the only song over 5 minutes, takes too long winding itself down with a quiet instrumental coda that lasts over a minute. “Tomorrow’s Grave” is almost heavy-metalish in its loud yet plodding trudge, yet doesn’t achieve lift-off at any point like most of the other songs on the album. “No Knives” feels like a demo sketch, and its inclusion on the album is hard to understand.
But the meandering is all part of the general effort to remain fresh and inventive, to try new things and not just rely on the power of their voices and guitars, which is admirable, and thankfully the meandering is not as extensive or as crippling as on The Center Won’t Hold. The songs shine on through. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are both on very fine form, not resting on their laurels but trying to push their sound and careers forward through the band’s biggest humps so far, and their rate of success is enormously encouraging for fans worried that Weiss’ departure would spell the beginning of the end for one of the greatest of all rock bands.
When you hear songs like “Complex Female Characters,“ which has deliciously ironic verses that go “I like those complex female characters / But I want my women to go down easy,“ equally ironic choruses that go “You’re too much of a woman now / You’re not enough of a woman now,“ and a spellbinding finish with dramatic squalls of feedback-drenched guitar putting a musical exclamation mark on the song’s conclusion, it makes you believe that they really could keep on going on forever.