Sleater-Kinney began as a partnership between Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, an outlet for their intertwined expression and furious voices. On Path to Wellness, the band’s tenth studio album and third since a surprise revival in 2015, it is back to the two of them. The heartbreaking departure of longtime drummer Janet Weiss — taking place between the recording and release of Sleater-Kinney’s previous album, The Center Won’t Hold — evidently inspiring the notion that the original duo are the only official members needed. As if to underscore the conviction, the Path to Wellness is the first entirely self-produced effort. From now on, it’s Carrie and Corin against the world.
Such projection of tight-knit camaraderie might seem like foolhardy projection, a kind of fan fiction of band personnel choices akin to nursing the fantasy that the most beloved artists convene together constantly, like the Monkees all living in the same house and cavorting into the world for shared adventures. Except that the lyrics keep providing evidence of a reforged pact. Spunky lead single “Worry with You” declares, “I had thought, there was no place for what I feel/ And then I learned, you are the place for what I feel/ Come at me with all of your swagger/ The strength of you is what I’ve been after,” and it feels less like a love song and more like a celebration of revived artistic loyalty. There’s a similar sense of hard-won togetherness on the sinewy “Down the Line”: “Spent the season sad and haunted/ Seeking wisdom in the stars too dim to shine/ If it’s coming for us, darlin’/ Take my hand and dance me down the line.” I hear the wounds of Weiss’s exit in the agitated track “Favorite Neighbor” (“And oh my, we didn’t see it coming/ Built ourselves a fortress/ And now the walls are tumblin'”), but the record is built more on perseverance than regret.
Path to Wellness can easily be interpreted as Brownstein and Tucker standing fast to their creative decisions, including the sonic experimentation of The Center Won’t Hold that alienated some critics (and was at last part of motivation behind Weiss’s decision). The album-opening title cut is fearlessly continues the controversial mode, hitting with an electro sword clash of flinty neo-funk. The evolution from straightforward guitar-hook pummeling to a more studio-manipulated version of the same sound sometimes calls to mind the heritage rockers of the nineteen-seventies who went wild with fast-moving upgrade to recording technologies and techniques in the immediate aftermath of the new-wave eruption of the early eighties. I swear I hear hints of Heart in “Shadow Town” and Pat Benatar in “Bring Mercy.” The effect is so pervasive that Brownstein’s vocal turn on “Method” calls to mind the quavering, emotionally resonant phrasing of Chrissie Hynde.
My preference is to celebrate, and I have long since given myself over fully to the spectacular dynamics of Sleater-Kinney. Even I must concede, though, that Path to Wellness isn’t entirely successful. Where tracks on earlier albums usually give the sense that they’ve been honed to lean, mean perfection, some of the material here has more of a good-enough vibe. More unexpectedly, and uncharacteristically, there are a couple clear misses: the leaden commentary “Complex Female Characters” and indie-slough throwaway “No Knives.” These cuts aren’t disasters, but nor are they up to high standard that Sleater-Kinney has set. It’s easy to forgive them as a minor divots on a long, majestic roadway. Brownstein and Tucker have traveled a long way together. Path to Wellness offers ample reason to hope that they’ll keep on that journey for a long time yet.