Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Waxahatchee Saint Cloud

Katie Crutchfield creates a new vocabulary when she sings. Her voice curls around words — she adds extra syllables to them and smushes them together, she fits them into places they cannot go. On Saint Cloud, her fifth album as Waxahatchee, Crutchfield’s voice is more versatile than ever. Every enunciation feels purposeful, whether she’s gasping and coming up for air or howling into the night sky.

Each Waxahatchee album has been a level-up. Since holing up in a bedroom for a week to record her 2012 debut American Weekend, Crutchfield has dug deeper with every LP, ending up with one of the most satisfying discographies to come together in the last decade. 2017’s Out In The Storm pushed her sound to its limit. It was messy and bitter and invigorating, filled with soaring and abrasive break-up anthems that directed all her anger at a specific person. Saint Cloud pulls back from all that and considers the possibility that the person Crutchfield was most angry at was herself.

Almost two years ago, Crutchfield made the decision to get sober. Substances have always played a part in Waxahatchee songs. She’d spin those downward spirals into hooks. “I don’t care/ I’ll embrace all of my vices,” she sings on one of her earliest songs. “And we’ll black it out/ Or at least slow everything down.” She would depict herself stumbling through circumstance, pulled around by fate. She sang about her own self-destructive tendencies without really understanding how they can fuel themselves, how they can be something you can try to change.

Saint Cloud is her attempt to break free from those patterns, to hold herself personally accountable and reckon with the consequences of her behavior. It’s a constant struggle, filled with backslides and bad days. No song on Saint Cloud feels like an immediate breakthrough; her transformation is taken bit-by-bit, day-by-day. But it’s her most affecting portrait of the demons that have been chasing her, the battle that is going on inside her chest every day. “I’m at war with myself,” she sings on one. “It’s got nothing to do with you.” On another, she renders those vices in corporeal form: “I hover above like a deity, but you don’t worship me/ You strip the illusion, you did it well/ I’ll put you through hell.”

Crutchfield is a force to be reckoned with on Saint Cloud, one who acknowledges her faults and is learning to live with them. Sobriety is only part of the puzzle, or rather it’s the key that unlocks the lucidity needed to learn to trust yourself and your emotions. It’s raw and restless, her songs are open nerve endings and her intense self-reflection sometimes feels like a burden of its own. She packs in so much to pick apart in every line; her lyrics are denser and more graceful than ever before. “I have a gift, I’ve been told, for seeing what’s there,” she muses on her own creativity, weighed down by her ability to turn her darkest emotions into songs. “I will chase all the rain, put it down, call it paint/ To possess something arcane, oh, it’s a heavy weight.”

A lot of the songs on Saint Cloud are about giving yourself over to desire; they’re trepidatious love songs. It’s terrifying — knowing what you want and actually getting it. Crutchfield spends the first few songs on the album examining those desires. “I want it all,” she sings on opener “Oxbow,” the simple sentiment turned profound by booming drums and an echoing harmony. “Can’t Do Much” is a honeysuckle fall into infatuation that is frustrated by how easy it can be to fall in love, that treats love like it could be just another addiction. “I want you, all the time,” she sings. “Sanity, nullified.” On “Fire,” she wishes to love herself as unconditionally as she can other people, hopes that the clarity about herself that she seeks is just around the corner. “Tomorrow could feel like a hundred years later/ I’m wiser and slow and attuned,” she imagines as a future for herself. “And I am down on my knees, I’m a bird in the trees/ I can learn to see with a partial view.”

“Lilacs,” an absolute stunner and an immediate pantheon Waxahatchee song, takes all those unsteady desires and dismantles them in one fell swoop. It was written on one of those days when that clear-headedness doesn’t come so easy, when you slip back into old habits — a fiery temper, a wandering mind. “I get so angry, baby, at something you might say/ I dream about an awful stranger, work my way through the day,” Crutchfield sings, hitting every word like a boxer: “I run it like a silent movie/ I run it like a violent song/ I run it like a voice compelling/ So right it can’t be wrong.” The constantly spinning turntable of anxieties in her own head never stops playing. “If I’m a broken record, write it in the dust, babe,” she begs. “I’ll fill myself back up like I used to do/ And if my bones are made of delicate sugar/ I won’t end up anywhere good without you.” Crutchfield pictures herself as a flower, seeded with bad inclinations, but she can also envision a way out, blooming into something new.

These realizations are matched by a change in sound. Saint Cloud is softer, brighter, more ruminative than anything Waxahatchee has put out. Crutchfield pulls from country music and Americana, she embraces twangy guitars and the lilt of her native Alabama. She affords this kind of music the same blown-out, heightened state that she did indie rock on Out In The Storm. Everything is rendered cleanly and exactingly. She’s helped out by producer Brad Cook, best known for working with Bon Iver, and members of the gauzy Bonny Doon serve as part of her backing band. While recording it, three inspirational photos hung up in the studio: Fiona Apple, SZA, and Lucinda Williams, three artists whose visions are uncompromising.

The most striking songs on Saint Cloud are saved for the end. The final three tracks find Crutchfield adopting the role of a poetic storyteller. They act as a travelogue, snapshots of places that were fundamental to her self-actualization. They’re all beautifully still, stripped-down, weeping ballads. “Arkadelphia,” named after a road in Birmingham, paints her hometown with a fine brush: “I lose my grip, I drive out far/ Pass fireworks at the old trailer park/ And folding chairs, American flags/ Selling tomatoes for 5 bucks a bag.” “Ruby Falls” finds Crutchfield in Chattanooga, walking down East 7th Street and witnessing “a wistful, wild depravity/ Iconoclastic, black and white, dusty and sweet.” And on closer “St. Cloud,” named after the Florida city where her father is from, she thinks back to her time spent in New York City, feeling small while watching the city fade away on the M train: “Where do you go when your mind starts to lose its perfected shape?” she wonders. “Virtuosic, idealistic, musing a fall from grace.”

These songs are indebted to Williams, who is clearly an important touchstone for Crutchfield. The two songwriters share the same spark and wit, the same sweeping specificity, the same ability to bend songs to their will. In an essay that Crutchfield wrote for Stereogum a few years ago about Lucinda Williams’ own fifth album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, she admired its confidence, how it can be everything all at once. “Exploring all the corners of influence, making something authentic, letting it not take a discernible shape people can easily name, all of that took courage that I found hard to summon,” she wrote. “When I discovered Car Wheels I fully realized how powerful it can be to embrace the contradictions and the unknown because that is the only path to making something that is truly original.”

With Saint Cloud, Crutchfield has created something wholly original. She embraces her own contradictions and comes through with something that sounds like a triumph, the calming light after a storm. It’s the pinnacle of what she has accomplished so far, a masterpiece of precision that threads together everything that she has been working toward and offers up the best possible version of herself so far. It’s a demanding listen and also a joyous one — the rejuvenation of a spirit whose distinctive voice we all so desperately need.

Saint Cloud is out 3/27 via Merge Records. Pre-order it here.

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