Katie Crutchfield has always had a knack for noting subtle shifts in the weather. “I watch you anxiously/You paint it celestial, you paint it serene,” she sang over thrashing guitars on “Poison,” from 2015’s Ivy Tripp, making serenity sound like a death knell. On her latest album Saint Cloud, the 31-year-old songwriter trades in the indie-rock neurosis of her previous work for a mellower, twangy sound that nods towards her roots in Birmingham, Alabama. But her piercing observations have only grown sharper with time: “I have a gift, I’ve been told, for seeing what’s there,” she warns on “The Eye.” Under her gaze, a sunset hints at destruction – “West Memphis is on fire in the light of day” – and love quietly marches towards its final resting place, wherever that may be.
Since she began her Waxahatchee project, Crutchfield has taken on a different soundscape for each of her records. Waxahatchee’s 2012 debut American Weekend was a lo-fi transmission; 2013’s Cerulean Salt combined clean-cut, aquatic production with a full backing band; 2015’s Ivy Tripp added drum machines and whirling, mutable synthesizers; 2017’s Out in the Storm was loud and grungy, arena guitars fueled by a bitter breakup. What glued all these disparate albums together was Crutchfield’s songwriting, clear-eyed and honest, and on Saint Cloud, the sun-kissed compositions match her words perfectly. Produced with Brad Cook, they recall one of Crutchfield’s heroes, Lucinda Williams, along with the melodic storytelling from folk songwriters like Patty Griffin. You can hear these songs playing out of car speakers on a daytime road trip, or by a summer bonfire once it starts to die down.
Crutchfield has her reasons for contemplation: this is the first album she’s recorded since she stopped drinking. Coming out of the fiery, raucous rager that was Out of the Storm, it would’ve been easy for a sober follow-up to be blandly cleansing or palatable. Instead, Crutchfield hones her obsession with repeated habits, questioning what it means to be healed and to still be healing. “Tomorrow could feel like a hundred years later, I’m wiser and slow and attuned,” she sings on “Fire,” along to a tempo that matches her steady pace. On “Lilacs,” a wandering country tune with “Suspicious Minds” chord progressions, Crutchfield makes gradual maturity sound mundane and grandiose all at once. “And the lilacs drink the water/And the lilacs die,” she sings plainly, before acknowledging her own weaknesses: “I get so angry, baby, at something you might say.” The word “wild” appears no less than five times across the album, as Crutchfield continually wrestles with the idea of giving up a part of yourself that you once considered essential to your being.
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There’s a new richness to Crutchfield’s voice that smooths out the emotional extremities; when she sings the phrase “lit up behind a sunbeam,” on “The Eye,” it sounds like joyous harmonies from a gospel song, dropped right in the middle of an otherwise tranquil acoustic track. Her enunciations on opener “Oxbow” turn it into a chant, making her piano-backed mantra (“I want it all”) sound more reassuring than dire. On the sprightly album standout “Can’t Do Much,” an ode to the annoyance of falling in love with someone, she’s unhurried and unbothered by her lack of control. “I give it to you all on the dime/I love you till the day I, love you till the day I, love you till the day I die…I guess it don’t matter why,” she shrugs.
Crutchfield’s writing has often been described as “earthy,” for its homegrown truth-telling and startling honesty. (The names reflect it: Crutchfield’s project is named after Waxahatchee Creek, near where she grew up, and this album is christened after her father’s hometown in Florida.) But on Saint Cloud there are more concrete details than ever before, amplified by instrumentation that sounds plucked from the side of the road. On “Witches,” Crutchfield leaves the confines of one-on-one interpersonal relationships, seeking solace and catharsis in her tourmates: dancer Marlee Grace, Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail, her bandmate and twin sister Allison. The gorgeous “Arkadelphia” winds its way through small-town trappings of the past – American flags, red dirt pathways, lawn chairs, bags of tomatoes for five bucks a pop – in the hopes of finding answers to current demons. “We try to give it all meaning/Glorify the grain of the wood,” Crutchfield sighs. She concludes by sticking to the only plan that’s ever worked: to keep driving, and keep searching.
Saint Cloud threads its references to mortality and aging carefully, before putting them in stark relief on the final two tracks. “Ruby Falls” envisions a funeral on the waterways of Crutchfield’s childhood, as she reminds herself that compassion and trust have the capacity to build someone up as well as break a person down. “You might mourn all that you wasted, that’s just part of the haul,” she remarks sagely. The closing “Saint Cloud” – backed only by piano, a humming synthesizer and a faintly-strummed guitar – sounds at first like a farewell note, but it carries a lively promise: to burn out slowly, instead of all at once. “If the dead just go on living, well there’s nothing left to fear,” Crutchfield sings – not resigned, but hopeful.