A lot has been written about how Waxahatchee’s sound has changed over her past few albums, from the lo-fi bedroom approach of Cerulean Salt (where my love for her music began), through the full band grunge stylings of Out of the Storm, to the more straightforwardly country approach of her current release, Saint Cloud.
Too much has been made of these stylistic differences. Sure, the records have pulled in slightly varied directions, with different parts of her creative repertoire leaned on more heavily on each outing. But they are a recognisably cohesive body of work. Saint Cloud is a more polished, more restrained record than her earlier ones. But it feels like a logical development of the tendencies that we have already seen in her songs, rather than a new direction. I reviewed Cerulean Salt when it was released, and it is interesting that much of what I wrote then could be applied to this record. The emotional honesty, self-reflection and powerfully simple song structures that affected me so much work their magic again here. The drums particularly provide a clear link between the records. Simple, repetitive and muscular, they provide a powerful backdrop to her lyrics.
Country music has been a real escape for me during lockdown and it’s tempting to list all the legendary artists that Waxahatchee is picking up that baton from. But that would be to do a disservice to Katie Crutchfield. Whilst this record operates within the familiar confines and contours of the genre, she isn’t in thrall to anyone else. First and foremost, this is a Waxahatchee record rather than a country record. The hallmarks of the genre are co-opted for the same introspection and reflection that has typified her discography.
Perhaps the most striking development is her voice. Previously, it sometimes felt like she had pushed it to the edge, leaving it sounding frayed, overworked and in danger of breaking completely. Its power came paradoxically from it being a fallible object. Here it is richer, softer, yet equally adept at carrying the emotion and intensity of before. And that is perhaps true of the music too. The surface-level softness is equally capable of exploring pain and suffering as the jagged guitars of previous records.
On album opener ‘Oxbow’, she tussles with her past experiences and future choices in elliptical fashion. Her voice is highly self-aware throughout, knowingly mocking how her dreams ‘may feel trite’. But the repeated refrain of “I want it all” that she ends the song with feels defiant and valedictory.
That same reflective, knowing stance appears on ‘Fire’, with the speaker addressing the words of the song to themselves. Rather than ignoring her past mistakes, she wants to accept them. When she sings “If I could love you unconditionally // I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky”, there is a plea for self-acceptance. Instead of seeking to punish herself, she wants to love herself, recognising the strength that would bring.
‘Lilacs’ also demonstrates this newfound maturity and self-acceptance. Initially chastising herself for becoming angry with her partner, she recognises that this pattern of events is nothing new, that it’s human and will be overcome. The circular structure of the song (she returns to the opening image of lilacs drinking water) highlights this sense of repetition, finding strength and comfort in it rather than despair.
It’s not all internalised self-therapy though. On ‘Witches’, Crutchfield imagines herself and her friends as witches, exploring the bonds and struggles of female friendship. ‘Ruby Falls’, the penultimate song on the album, mourns a lost friend. Over a minimal drumbeat and soft electric piano, she considers their life and impulses with empathy, vowing to remember them like ‘an angler married to the sea’.
And that is what ties the album together thematically. There is a kindness in her attitude towards others and herself. Faults aren’t excused, nor are they used as ammunition. There is an empathetic recognition of how deeply flaws are a part of what makes us human. This beautiful record is perhaps just what we need to listen to right now.
Words by Will Collins