On June 10th, Sleater-Kinney took to Twitch to promote their new album, Path of Wellness. Now just Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (plus whoever they record and tour with for a particular album), the broadcast focused on the musical—and personal—intimacy between Tucker and Brownstein, updated for the COVID-19 era. Plagued with all of the technical difficulties that we who have been in Zoom meetings—or classrooms—during the pandemic know all too well (volume mismatches, feeds cutting out, grainy videos), Tucker and Brownstein tap into their characteristic banter to laugh about all the mishaps. About twenty minutes in, Brownstein asks, “Oh, we’re live?” while she looks into the camera. “Okay, we’re back on the backyard!” Tucker soon adds to redirect back towards the program. “Sorry for any technical issues. Honestly, um, we called Xfinity, we called Comcast, we called AT&T, we called, like, family members, we called… we called a lot of people to have them come help. So, there are going to be a lot of people, a lot of trucks getting here soon.” “Trucks, with big satellites, the tall towers. They’re gonna come fix everything,” Tucker adds while struggling to keep a straight face. Yes, we had been doing this pandemic thing for a while at this point; no, we still do not even close to have it all figured out.
In one of the most comical moments of the hour-long special, Tucker and Brownstein sit down with Mariel Martin, a local Portland psychic, to talk about the possible future of their album. “We have a record coming out and we’re curious about how it’s going to be perceived. Like, if you could look into the future for us,” Brownstein soon beckons. “When you ask that, I have angels in my ear, angels that talk to me everyday. And they’re saying that there’s one reviewer who’s going to write, ‘Needs more work.’ So some people are not going to understand your music.” Tucker and Brownstein look at one another apprehensively after hearing that response. After talking about the importance of making art in this moment and about whether or not they’ll make another album (they get mixed messages), Brownstein additionally asks, “Where do you sort of see the Metacritic rating?” “Yeah, I’m actually getting 85.” “Okay, that’s like a B,” Tucker responds. “Better than a B. A B+!” Martin counters. Meanwhile, when they bring Martin out again in the live segment, Tucker asks her, “We are actually doing a tour this summer. And… we’re really excited. But… there are kind of a lot of unknowns about going back and, you know, doing live music again after the pandemic. And I wonder if you can pick up anything about this tour we’re doing in August. It’s with Wilco, we’re doing it across the whole U.S., so lots of different venues. Red Rocks—it’s one of the big venues (I’ve never been there).” “Well, Red Rock[s], you’ll love it. It’s very beautiful,” Martin begins. “August is when everyone’s ready to come out of their home and hear the music.”
Both of these exchanges with Martin would turn out to be very predictive.
The domain of music criticism about Sleater-Kinney since Janet Weiss left the band has been a treacherous terrain, one which I began to survey in my blog post about their previous album, The Center Won’t Hold. A lot of the reviews of The Center Won’t Hold offered tough love without much love—and the reviews of Path of Wellness, in my opinion, have been close to outright cruel at some points. Writing for Pitchfork (which gave the album a low (for S-K) 6.8), Sophie Kemp closes her review with chagrin,
Path of Wellness is chilled out, almost effortless. It’s not such a bad thing to feel like you don’t have to work hard for what you’re listening to—but Sleater-Kinney used to put you in a headlock and hold you there. Their songs can make you feel crazy, give you whiplash, make you clench your jaw, kick a brick wall, eat a pill off the ground and then spit it up in someone’s face. There is none of that bleary-eyed rage on Path of Wellness. Moreover, very little happens at all. This music doesn’t prompt the kind of introspection that leads to personal breakthroughs; it doesn’t leave the world feeling more vivid, more exhilarating than it did before. Sleater-Kinney has made heart-stopping, philosophically challenging rock music. Path of Wellness takes a more pacifist stance, content to let life happen around it.
This passage epitomizes everything I dislike about how many music critics have written about Sleater-Kinney since Weiss’s departure: that the band aren’t interesting anymore, that the band have lost their “edge,” that the band maybe just should have stopped while they were ahead. Most problematic is that same lack of space for growth that I highlighted in my post about The Center Won’t Hold: that Sleater-Kinney are only supposed to sound one way ever—and if they don’t (as Kemp claims for Path of Wellness), then they’re not being “true” to themselves anymore. (Perhaps anticipating this critique, Craig Jenkins cheekily titled his review for Vulture “Sleater-Kinney Is Whatever Sleater-Kinney Says It Is.”)
S-K anticipated this response, as Brownstein remarks in the band’s May interview with Vulture:
I find it really interesting that the same people who reject conservatism [in politics] will insist upon a very orthodox view of this band, that people who rail against binary oppositions on all fronts will settle for reductive, fixed, black-and-white narratives of Sleater-Kinney through refusing to acknowledge nuance or multiple truths. Sometimes it seemed like the reaction to The Center Won’t Hold was more about us refusing to conform to a codified and static version of ourselves.
On the album, this simultaneous frustration and disappointment most comes through on “Complex Female Characters,” a classic “Carrie song” where Brownstein moves in the blurry space between assuming a male persona (so as to critique it) while also reminding everyone that she is, indeed, a queer woman—and that Sleater-Kinney has always, above all, been a band for women and queer people (I’m using “queer” here in a way that encompasses trans, nonbinary, and bi people as full members of our communities, which does not always happen out in the real world). “You still got some good moves left in you/ Just do them right this time/ He still got some good looks left in you/ Just show up the way I like” Brownstein snarls in the chorus, before repeating “You’re too much of a woman now/ You’re not enough of a woman now” over and over again before going into a roaring guitar solo—and letting Tucker close out the song by wailing “You can’t escape my imagination” on repeat, eight times. This, too, was foreshadowed on The Center Won’t Hold, when Brownstein on “LOVE” sings, “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene/ Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen/ Fuck!” Now in their mid- to late 40s, Tucker and Brownstein find themselves up against a new set of expectations for being middle-aged women in rock—and expose it all on “Complex Female Characters” and “No Knives.”
Surprisingly, the person who seems to have most gotten what the band were going for on this album was veteran music critic Rob Sheffield. Writing for Rolling Stone, Sheffield closes his review with candor:
But for the most part, Tucker and Brownstein get down to brass tacks emotionally—they spend this album pleading for love and tenderness. They’re not going for rock anthems or fist-pumping power chords. (Without Weiss, there would be little point.) The finale “[Bring] Mercy” is Tucker praying for human kindness to save the day, with an Eighties pop sheen in the mode of Pat Benatar circa “Shadows of the Night.” (It would have [fit] right into Pat’s Precious Time or Get Nervous.) On Path of Wellness, Sleater-Kinney sound like they’re regrouping after a period of loss and isolation, taking stock of what remains. And in 2021, they’re not the only ones.
If The Center Won’t Hold was an album about finding love and tenderness (and letting go) during the Trump era, then Path of Wellness continues this work in the pandemic era. Despite being their most straight-forward “rock” album possibly ever, Sheffield zooms in on what also appeals most to me about Path of Wellness: that it’s an album that grapples with the emotional messiness of trying to continue on with life during a pandemic that’s still raging throughout our country and world. No matter who we are (except maybe the very rich), we have all lost something—or, perhaps, someone(s)—in this pandemic. We were also faced, especially in the very beginning, with the impetus to use our “free time” at home wisely, to learn a new skill or get into better shape, anything to continue how capitalism pushes on us to be the most “productive” during our free time. Maybe we grew closer to some people; maybe we grew apart from others. Perhaps we had to learn to care for ourselves—or others—in new ways. This is what Path of Wellness is about, all while also remarking on the political situation (especially around the June 2020 protests for George Floyd and BLM more broadly) in summer 2020, in Portland and beyond.
Seeming to respond directly to the negative reviews, Sleater-Kinney soon posted on IG, closing out with,
It’s interesting putting work out in the world, particularly after doing so for 25 years. The air gets thinner up here (and by “up here” we mean age, not echelon); there are fewer precedents. But what we’ve learned by those who continue is that you put your head down and commit to the ritual of it, for the sake of doing and making, to tell stories from the spaces and the bodies you find yourself in now, which won’t necessarily use the same vernacular before because how and why could you. And you do it with gratitude because you love it and love doing it. We appreciate and are grateful for every iteration of this band, from the early days to the middle days to the future unknowns; and we are grateful to our listeners, old and new. As with all of our work, we hope this record meets you where you are, if not now, then maybe someday.
Every time that I read over this paragraph, I am struck by S-K’s (likely Brownstein’s, as this seems to be in her writing voice) vulnerability in “tell[ing] stories from the space and the bodies you find yourself in now, which won’t necessarily use the same vernacular before because how and why could you.” In a time of pandemic, there is a new emphasis on bodies; I can only imagine that being aging rockers (who are also middle-aged women) can only add to the viscerality of this. More than that, we are forced to remember that our bodies are bodies, materialities that will someday cease to exist in their present form, when we grapple with a global health crisis such as COVID-19. On the other side of this, meanwhile, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers decry every new restriction “against” them, plenty eager to otherwise outlaw abortion or deny gender-affirming health care to trans, non-binary, and queer people. This is the bodily world that we find ourselves in at this moment in time, only politically amplified by the pandemic.
More than any album since One Beat, Sleater-Kinney on Path of Wellness tell stories of historically specifical moments, combining what Daphne Brooks recently called the “Walter Benjamin-fluent polymath[y]” (39) of Brownstein with Tucker’s gift for emotionally tapping into a collective moment. The latter shines on “Shadow Town” and “Bring Mercy,” the second of which was written as a reflection on the violent police retaliation against protesters in Portland in summer 2020. Here is Tucker’s entire first verse:
How do we face our moment?
One that slaps across the cheek
How did we lose our city?
Rifles running through our streets
Dirty with an illness
Dirty from our deeds
Lost in isolation
Dirty as we play for keeps
On every single Sleater–Kinney album since Dig Me Out, the last song has been Tucker’s, often an emotional ballad of sorts that coalesces all of the themes running throughout any given album. (One of the most powerful examples of this is “Sympathy” on One Beat, where Tucker calls for empathy—in her world and beyond—after almost losing her son in childbirth). “How do we face our moment?” is precisely the question of the moment, particularly for those of us on the left/progressive/radical sides of things who (very carefully) have hoped that we might pivot into a more egalitarian society during/after all of this. But it is also a moment in which all of the same violences are allowed to prevail, as evidenced by the “Rifles running through our streets.” Even with Biden as president, the white supremacy is no less rampant in the world of Path of Wellness as it was on The Center Won’t Hold. And the very word “dirty,” which Tucker invokes three times in one verse, is also loaded, both the stuff of how those with disease are perceived but also a controlling mechanism over women, people of color, and queer people for all of the hundreds of years that America has been in existence. There are still so many disappointments, yes. But, as Brownstein will note at the Red Rocks show, “Mainly what doesn’t disappoint is playing live music again—and experiencing simultaneous moments with a group of people like yourselves.”
On August 10th, I got in line at 5pm mountain time for the Sleater-Kinney show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. It was my eight time lining up early for the band since 2005, the memories of the previous shows already with me as I stood in line: 1) June 2005 at Roseland Ballroom in New York City (my eighteenth birthday); 2) July 2006 at Starlight Ballroom in Philadelphia; 3) July 2006 at 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.; 4) August 2006 in Portland, Oregon (the supposed “farewell” show); 5) April 2015 at Stubbs in Austin; 6) December 2015 at Market Hotel in Brooklyn; and 7) November 2019 at Fox Theater in Oakland. It was my eighth time seeing S-K play in a different city across the country. More than that, it was my first concert since/in the pandemic, in the week right before starting a new job. There to myself, I mostly kept to continuing to read Daphne Brooks’s Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. Since their return from hiatus, the band, too, had been moving with a heightened consciousness to Black Lives Matter and other race-based solidarity movements. On that first tour back in early 2015, they brought Black women as openers: Lizzo on the East Coast and Midwest dates (which an ex would tell me all about) and THEEsatisfaction on the West Coast and Southern dates (which I would experience in person in Austin). At the November 2019 Oakland show, meanwhile, they brought KAINA, a Latinx artist from Chicago, with them as the opener, in addition to adding Japanese singer and multi-instrumentalist Toko Yasuda to the tour. On this occasion, they would bring along Fabi Reyna, an indigenous guitarist who can shred like no other, with them. As always, the band would amplify the need for representation while also blowing away the stereotypes that come along with them.
The show was always bound to be very emotional for me, both for returning to something I had missed so much (going to shows) and accentuating the ways that nothing is as it was before (which is life in an ongoing pandemic). Looking to ease us in, the band open their co-headlining set with the first two songs from the most recent album (“Path of Wellness” and “High in the Grass”), as they had done in every other non-“farewell tour” (2006) show of theirs that I have experienced. Within a few songs, it becomes clear (based on my intuition) that the band will not be performing many songs from the pre-hiatus days, with the likely exception of The Woods (and, to my surprise, a piano rendition of “One Beat”). There is a kind of presentness to this decision, a being here now in the now of the concert space that we might have previously taken for granted in the before times. At the same time, there is a more subtle acknowledgement of loss, not only of the way things used to be but also Janet Weiss, the powerhouse drummer who left the band after the release of their previous album, The Center Won’t Hold. On that tour, there was a grasping for straws in some regards, a mixing of pre- and post-hiatus songs that never quite felt right, especially in the moment of the show. At that show, the absence of where Weiss used to be was glaring, missed backing vocals and cowbell and harmonica and drum fills. At this show, meanwhile, the songs had been reworked, the loss more internalized—such as on “Jumpers,” which became a duet between Tucker and Brownstein versus the trio of harmonizing that it once was. Silently, I was glad that they didn’t perform the older songs, that they didn’t try to pretend that anything was how it used to be on any level. Those songs largely remain tucked away at the Market Hotel show for me, in the company of someone I once loved—and who opened me up to all the love in my life to follow.
Midway through the set, the band move towards performing “Shadow Town.” As it is a “Corin song,” Tucker introduces it by saying, “It’s been an incredible sixteen months of what we’ve all been through. And instead of putting that into words, we put it into an album.” And when I hear those (supposedly) Steely Dan-inspired opening guitar riffs, I just lose it and start crying during the opening instrumental. I think about everything I’ve been through in the past year and a half, starting with being raped by my ex-partner early on into the pandemic. When someone rapes you, it never completely goes away. A most insidious form of trauma, it stays in your body, becoming something that you must learn to live alongside. And so, in this moment when I’m crying during “Shadow Town,” I recognize this: I am not the same person I was before the pandemic; I am not the same person I was before I was raped. I think also of Michelle Zauner’s recent tour-de-force Crying in H Mart, where she beautifully, powerfully, and, at times, painfully narrates us through the often overlapping forces of navigating the microaggressions of being Asian American while also holding the grief from the death of her mother. While rape and death are not at all the same thing, the simultaneous having to sit with someone(‘s actions) inside you while also having to let them go is a shared point of connection between these two kinds of grief. As I’m sitting there and crying, I make a new release, add another layer to my healing from one of the most violent acts that anyone has ever committed against me. Healing is not the capitalist idea of overcoming, as Robin James so meticulously dissects in their book Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism. This is exactly what S-K are after here too: that we don’t have to be healed yet, that we can heal on our own terms. The entire premise of Path of Wellness is questioning what we mean by “wellness.”
Another emotional high point comes from hearing the band play songs from The Woods, the first new S-K album that I listened to in real time. Similar to the show in Oakland two years ago, the band perform “What’s Mine Is Yours” early on into the set. When they get to “Jumpers” a few songs after “Shadow Town,” however, it strikes a different chord. Most of the band temporarily leave the stage—and only Tucker, Brownstein, and their guitars are there to power the track. I remember what it was like to hear this song for the first time at age 17, to have such an affective description of what the depression I experienced throughout all four years of high school felt like, before I had the language to even describe it as such. So, there is that temporal leap, that bodily remembrance of what I felt in my body. Simultaneously, I recognize that I’m no longer there, even as the pandemic still brings so many variables (even as getting on the tenure track adds a sense of permanence to my life that’s been missing in the past seven years). When the band get to “Modern Girl” near the end of the set, I finally stand up. Although I didn’t particularly love this song at the time of The Woods’s release, it has, over time, become the sing-a-long moment of S-K’s set. “My baby loves me, I’m so angry/ Anger makes me a modern girl/ Took my money, I couldn’t buy nothin’/ I’m sick of this brave new world,” Brownstein sing-screams on the final verse. There is no harmonica this time; there is still no Janet Weiss. But the seething anger at our current form of modernity is still there, this time updated by watching hundreds of thousands of people being allowed to let die, at a mass unseen—and unfelt—since the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Do we really want to go back to the modernity of the Obama era, as Joe Biden prescribes?
The band close, as they often have since 2005, with “Entertain.” This is the “oldest” song that feels the most right, that seems to have evolved all right across multiple touring drummers. S-K jam out the ending and then walk off the stage, done for the night. After initially thinking I might stay for some of Wilco’s set, I get up and leave. There is no way that anything could possibly top what just happened. Texting with one of my favorite former students and fellow S-K fan along the way, I help convince him to go to their show on Friday (where they do, to his delight, play “One More Hour”). When someone new-ish in my life asks how the show was, I tell her about crying midway during the set—and that I was now going to go somewhere and journal my feelings. One of Sleater-Kinney’s greatest gifts as a band is their ability to tap into collective emotions and rechannel them affectively in their music. While their music on its own does this, it is Tucker’s songwriting that really takes this to the next level. I realize now, after 19 years of listening to this band and calling them my favorite, that Corin Tucker was one of the first people to show me how to write with and about emotion, was one of my first affect theory teachers. It is at this show that I realize that part of what I’m as good at affect theory as I am (and am subsequently writing an affect theory first book) is because of this band, because of all the ways that they have opened me—and my worlds—up emotionally. Someday, I hope to get to say this to Tucker in a more eloquent way than I did after the Philly show in 2006 or the Corin Tucker Band stop at The Bell House (with Versus as the openers!!!) in 2012. There is no shortage to the ways that this band has saved my life.