The first sound you hear on Sleater-Kinney‘s tenth album, Path of Wellness, is a bassline. That’s the first time that’s ever happened; throughout the band’s history, they’ve primarily stuck to a guitar-guitar-drums setup, occasionally incorporating organ, cello, the metallic clang of a space heater or, on 2019’s St. Vincent-produced The Center Won’t Hold, a flashy array of synthesizers. But never a bass. As far back as 1995, on their brief but promising punk rock debut, the Pacific Northwest group established a lean and often searingly intense sound driven more than anything by the sound of guitars, Corin Tucker often playing low on the neck while Carrie Brownstein handled the sharper leads. This is a band that once sold t-shirts that said “Show us your riffs,” which in large part felt like a challenge to other guitarists—as far as indie rock goes, few bands could boast riffs any better than Sleater-Kinney’s.
In the scheme of things, the addition of a bass to an otherwise conventional rock band lineup isn’t that drastic of a change, but it’s simply the latest in what’s been an ongoing series of adjustments since the band reunited back in 2015 with No Cities to Love. After that album established that Tucker, Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss still had possessed the fire that burned so brightly on their streak of records from 1997’s Dig Me Out to 2005’s The Woods, their next move on The Center Won’t Hold was a showcase in exploring sounds beyond what they’d already done before. The album, though not without its critics, proved the band still had more to say, though they wouldn’t continue to say it as the trio we’d come to know; drummer Janet Weiss, who performed on seven of the band’s ten albums, left the band shortly after its release. Yet for the dramatic period of transition that Sleater-Kinney have gone through in the past three years, tenth album Path of Wellness feels as much like a return to form as anyone could have expected, if a little bit warmer and more muted.
Tonally, Path of Wellness often feels like the photo negative of its predecessor. It’s the analog to The Center Won’t Hold‘s digital, less of a big statement than simply a really good set of songs. Tucker and Brownstein’s playing is less jagged, less driven by sharp bolts of distortion, but the riffs are there if you’re looking for them, sometimes as dissonant as ever—the reverb-heavy wash of effects haze that opens “Tomorrow’s Grave” is reminiscent of later Sonic Youth, accessibly abstract and just a little goth. And the opening pair of tracks, “Path of Wellness” and “High in the Grass,” carry the familiar thrill of the band playing at full-strength, each piece interlocking as a tightly wound unit. Tucker sings, “The spring night came alive and we lost our minds, and danced to no music like fools,” in the latter, and aside from the “no music” part, she pretty accurately captures the feeling of what it’s like to see the band in action.
Yet by and large these aren’t songs that have the same incendiary quality that the greatest moments in their catalog do. That doesn’t mean these aren’t very good songs—they are, and highly enjoyable to listen to at that. But on the laid-back grooves of “Worry With You” and “Method,” Sleater-Kinney feel like they’ve shifted gears again and have eased into another new phase, one of gentler earth tones than bold primary colors. It feels effortless in a way that its predecessor didn’t, even comfortable and relaxed. For a band with as many moments of career-defining triumph as Sleater-Kinney have, to say they simply put out an album that’s very good might sound like a criticism, but there’s little fault to be found with songs as strong as these. I’m just going to have to get used to the bass.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.