Katie Crutchfield decamped to her parents’ home in the dead of winter to record an album. It was 2011 and Crutchfield was nearing the end of P.S. Eliot, the band she had started with her twin sister Allison a few years earlier. Like many bands before them, its members wanted to go in different directions, and Katie’s path led her to that house, hunkered down during a rare Alabama snowstorm. Shortly after New Year’s Day and right around her 22nd birthday, she spent a week recording what would become American Weekend, her first album as Waxahatchee, a project that she named after a nearby creek that snaked through her childhood memories and a name that would come to define her adult life.
Despite being recorded in January, American Weekend sounds balmy and exposed, a spiral of tape hiss and open wounds. True to its title, it represents a compressed period of time, in how it was made and in how it feels. Crutchfield would write a song completely, record it, write another one, record it. She kept recording until she had the 11 tracks that would make up American Weekend, which was quietly released a year after she made it. There was something special about it from the start, a whispered secret that made those who stumbled across it treasure it all the more.
That origin story seems fitting for Waxahatchee, a project that has prided itself on vulnerability and often found strength in it. Crutchfield’s songs are conversations with herself that unspool over time. There are recurring images and ideas throughout her five albums, references to the Alabama that Crutchfield grew up in, allusions to a dark cloud hanging overhead in wait. Crutchfield’s voice sounds like a raw nerve; she fits irregular phrases into irregular shapes. Her lyrics are wordy and precise; her songs are filled with pinprick memories that ring true in their specificity. She favors fantastical imagery, elevates the mundane act of fucking up into a religious experience, as a way to honor it and hopefully expel her self-destructive tendencies entirely.
In the earliest years of Waxahatchee, Crutchfield’s songs were harder to pick apart, all ellipses at the end of the same sentence. With each album, her songwriting has become more constructed and defined. Even as her music has grown larger and more assured over the years, all of her albums are rooted in American Weekend’s stark directness — a promise to the listener to always try to remain honest and true. By the time she released her sophomore album, Cerulean Salt, a little over a year after her first, she had perfected the formula she laid out on her debut. The record still sounds muddy and indistinct, but she is backed up by a full band and teetering hooks, more reminiscent of the indie rock songs that she had made with P.S. Eliot. Cerulean Salt was Crutchfield’s breakthrough moment — her scrappy and sinewy songs about regret and missed connections and misunderstandings found a dedicated audience, acolytes of Crutchfield’s poetic wit and wiry compositions.
After that, she continued to build up one of the most singularly satisfying discographies to come together in the last decade. With 2015’s Ivy Tripp, she moved over to her now-home at Merge Records and started shading in and expanding on her repertoire of sounds. It was an admittedly transitional record, one that’s a little tentative, split between her DIY origins and the desire to create songs that were more sparkling and polished. She experimented with synths and stuttering drum machines, and her writing only became sharper and more confident. Those fleshed-out rock anthemics would come to fruition on 2017’s Out In the Storm, a marvel of glistening riffs and barreling forward momentum that proved Crutchfield’s wearied introspection worked on a grander scale.
This year, she released Saint Cloud, another remarkable refinement of her past albums and another addition to a pretty perfect run. It was also a clear demarcation point in Crutchfield’s discography, the first album she wrote after getting sober. The newfound clarity made Saint Cloud her most ambitious achievement yet, one that pulls from the same well of emotions she’s been tapping into since American Weekend but illuminates them in new and exciting ways. It feels like an appropriate enough time to pause and reflect on the journey that Crutchfield has made over the last 10 years.
A couple months into quarantine, Crutchfield announced a series of virtual shows in which she’d play every Waxahatchee album in full. It’s been a rewarding experience to watch Crutchfield revisit her older songs, some of which she hasn’t played since they were released. Those livestreams are ending tonight with a performance of Saint Cloud, so we decided to take this occasion to look back at the best songs in the Waxahatchee catalog. It’s a difficult task. Every Waxahatchee song sounds like it could be her best song when you’re listening to it — Crutchfield’s work has a bleary immediacy, a way of making you feel in-the-moment with her. She’s come a long way musically since her debut, but often it’s still sounds like it’s just her and a guitar and a stormy squall outside.
10. “La Loose” (From Ivy Tripp, 2015)
On Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield takes the Waxahatchee sound in a lot of different directions. Some of them work better than others, and the best is “La Loose,” which glimmers and weans like a spinning top.
Like many Waxahatchee songs, “La Loose” was written quickly, banged out on a Casiotone while Crutchfield was on vacation back home in Alabama. It’s a whirlwind of desire and disappointment, a song taking flight from a relationship’s fundamental flaws and hoping to distract away from it with pretty melodies — in the form of a hoo hoo hoo hook — and determination, through lyrics that paint the relationship as a “charming picture of hysteria in love.” “It could fade or wrinkle up, I don’t hold faith in much,” she sings. “I know that I feel more than you do.” That last line is biting, a justification for the song’s bated breath, the feeling of a love wanting to spread its wings but being clipped by dejection.
9. “Noccalula” (From American Weekend, 2012)
Waxahatchee albums always have stunning closers. They’re usually slower, more wistful — typically, whatever song Crutchfield came up with last in the writing process will also serve as its final track, a summation of everything that was explored in the previous songs. “Noccalula,” which closes out American Weekend, is about nostalgia for a time not yet past. Over a warped piano that sounds like it’s being played out of a gramophone, Crutchfield imagines her own life a few years on from when she wrote it: “Four years, we’ll barely speak/ And you’ve got a husband now/ I have Waxahatchee Creek/ And you used to come here with me,” she sings.
The song is filled with gut-scraping imagery (“I almost can taste your spit/ Pilsner brew and cigarettes”) and specifics (“Allison’s only calling me when her life’s falling apart”). At the very end of it, Crutchfield alludes to the next chapter of her life, moving to New York and hoping that things will be better there, as if you can shed past pains just by changing your environment. But “Noccalula” sounds like a persistent gnawing, the worry that we’ll always be trapped inside our own heads, our worst memories preserved in amber for us to mull over for eternity.
8. “Coast To Coast” (From Cerulean Salt, 2013)
“Coast To Coast” is the first true pop song that Crutchfield put out as Waxahatchee, though it has a lot in common with the ramshackle bliss that she made with her previous band P.S. Eliot. It’s an explosion of blown-out and fuzzy, wiggling guitars that gets in and out in under two minutes. Compared to the insular nature of American Weekend and even a lot of Cerulean Salt, “Coast To Coast” feels downright crude, an energy shot meant to push you through the doldrums.
It’s a song about tour, and being surrounded by good people and bad decisions. “When you’ve indulged every reckless whim, what is the weight of all your weakness?” Crutchfield asks mid-song, a heavy question only she can get away with in a song this effervescent. The track gets its name from the AM radio program Coast To Coast, a conspiracy-laden artifact that you’d only hear if for some godforsaken reason (like touring) you find yourself on the highway at 3AM. “Coast To Coast” turns that open road unreality into something tangible and invigorating.
7. “Brass Beam” (From Out In The Storm, 2017)
Justice for “Brass Beam”! There are a lot of standout tracks on Out In The Storm, but “Brass Beam” has always been my personal favorite. Every line tumbles into the next, Crutchfield laying on the multisyllabics and driving the song forward with a twangy momentum. It expresses an unfettered rage while also feeling diminished. “When I think about it I wanna punch the wall/ When I remember everything I wonder if I’ll always feel small” goes one line.
The song includes a single chord played on an organ humming underneath the chorus, an idea contributed by the album’s lead guitarist Katie Harkin, and it lends the song a spiritual underbelly. “She wanted it to sound like a window being open, like the sun was coming in,” Crutchfield remarked in a video about the track, and indeed it does. It’s a reckoning with your own anger, how holding on to the small resentments can make you miss the forest for the trees, and bring out the worst in yourself.
6. “Arkadelphia” (From Saint Cloud, 2020)
Saint Cloud is the album that brings Crutchfield back around to the places that populated her earliest songs, the cities and towns that dot her personal history. Arkadelphia Road is a street in Birmingham — it’s also a convenient accidental portmanteau combining the South and Philadelphia, two places that loom large in the Crutchfield mythology — and “Arkadelphia” opens with imagery from her hometown, fireworks and folding chairs and American flags. She then zooms out to a bigger picture, a familiar tale of lost potential and failed promises. “I hope you get real close to the ending/ I hope you know I did what I could,” Crutchfield sings. “We try to give it all meaning/ Glorify the grain of the wood/ Tell ourselves what’s beautiful and good.” The music gets out of the way of the narrative, a roiling acoustic guitar that offers up the occasional twang.
“Arkadelphia” is evidence of how far Crutchfield has come as a songwriter, how she now has the ability to soft-focus transition between all of these different ideas, tie them together with ease. “This song is so fucked up. I knew when I wrote it that I will never be able to really tell the story, because it’s not my place. It’s about someone I have known for a very long time who struggled badly with addiction,” she said in a recent interview. “I have struggled, but not like this person did. So it’s just relating to them, trying to connect, and almost feeling like you’re getting ready to say goodbye.” Though she might feel conflicted about her role as the narrator of this story, Crutchfield does a remarkable job here, channeling the story-songs of her country forbears into a perceptive and heart-wrenching portrait.
5. “Blue Pt. II” (From Cerulean Salt, 2013)
“If you think I’ll wait forever, you were right” belongs in the pantheon of all-time great opening lines. “Blue Pt. II” is an extraordinarily simple song, just one guitar line descending until it finally runs out of steam, but Crutchfield manages to do so much with it. The focus here, as it so often is, is on Crutchfield’s lyrics, the acuity that she can bring to a relationship that feels as undefined as the song itself. You can hear the exhaustion, the frustration, the determination in every word.
There are fundamental differences keeping these two characters apart, as simple and vast as being a morning person or not. “I wake up early every morning/ And you sleep for hours after me,” she sings. “In our darkened bedroom/ I can’t breathe behind this curtain that we keep.” Crutchfield’s mind aches in those quiet hours of dawn stillness, dreading that someone waking up because it means that then you can’t pretend that everything is perfect. The song is suffocated by a lack of resolution. Crutchfield, for these two minutes, will always be standing alone and waiting for a response, twirling around with no answer.
4. “Grass Stain” (From American Weekend, 2012)
Also file “I don’t care, I’ll embrace all of my vices” away in that pantheon of great opening lines. “Grass Stain” is another marvel of minimalism, Crutchfield combining years worth of blurry memories and impulsive decisions into a potent and prickling folk song. It’s a song about hiding away from your problems in a drunken haze. Crutchfield sees the worst parts of herself exacerbated when she’s drinking (“I’ll fish for compliments,” “I let you in real slow/ And I regret it immediately”) but sees no way to stop them from coming out. “I don’t care if I’m too young to be unhappy,” Crutchfield wails out at one point, the lo-fi recording straining along with her.
Ten years down the line, “Grass Stain” represents an older strain of Crutchfield’s music, one that wasn’t always so in control. It’s a messy, beautiful song about how messy and beautiful being a young adult can be, when you’re still headstrong enough about your inability to confront the world. “I won’t answer my phone/ I’ll never leave my bedroom,” Crutchfield insists at the end of the song, and she sings it with enough conviction that you believe her.
3. “Never Been Wrong” (From Out In The Storm, 2017)
“Never Been Wrong” is a withering ether that smartly and completely dismantles an ex as Crutchfield tries to build up her own confidence after a break-up. It’s ugly and cathartic and probably a little mean, the opening shot to an album that Crutchfield does not fuck around on. She adopts sparkling guitar heroics and huge, blown-out indie rock choruses on Out In The Storm, and “Never Been Wrong” is maybe the best example of the immeasurable power that Crutchfield can wield. She insists on being heard. “Everyone will hear me complain,” she sings defiantly. “Everyone will pity my pain.”
Crutchfield spares no expense in describing her partner on “Never Been Wrong.” “You’re smoking and laughing, untethered and carefree/ I will unravel when no one sees what I see,” she sings, documenting in real-time the moment when she comes to this realization that the guy she’s been with is kind of an asshole. But Crutchfield doesn’t let herself off the hook, either: She reflects on all the ways that she played into that hard-headedness, was comforted by his outward persona because it felt good or right or was easier than not. “All your tragic fiction, I always take the bait/ But the margin’s gigantic: Am I happy or manic?” It’s a towering achievement, a narrative that Crutchfield is finally getting a chance to take a hold of and write herself.
2. “You’re Damaged” (From Cerulean Salt, 2013)
“You’re Damaged” closes out Cerulean Salt on a harsh and intimate note. Crutchfield’s guitar is dry and crackling, a live wire that is getting ready to ignite. “[It’s] about flashbacks of having this close relationship with a person in your childhood, and then looking back on that and realizing that adult relationships aren’t the same,” Crutchfield explained in an interview. “You’re just not as close as you were when you were a kid, and no one’s as honest with each other — just living these completely different lives where each person has this self-important idea that their life is better.”
“You’re Damaged,” then,” is a song about dishonest comparisons. When she sings “this place is vile and I’m vile too,” Crutchfield is making herself complicit. The lyrics are oblique phrases, poetic manifestations of shame and jealousy, inexplicably coming together to make the listener feel a little dirty. There’s references to vomit and water, hands cut open and bleeding out. “My words are ugly/ And you can’t discern me,” Crutchfield sings, as if leveling with the listener that sometimes her songs are more impressionistic than can be sensibly parsed. But sometimes there is a perverse beauty in not knowing what will come next. “No, I cannot see into the future/ No, I cannot breathe underwater,” Crutchfield sings, perfectly human.
1. “Lilacs” (From Saint Cloud, 2020)
As someone that has been a Waxahatchee fan since the early days, it’s almost inconceivable to me that she can keep getting even better. It almost feels like cheating for a relatively new song to top this list, but I knew the first time I heard “Lilacs” that it was something special and it has yet to prove me wrong. It sounds like everything that Crutchfield has been searching for distilled into one track. If you’ve never listened to a Waxahatchee song, this is a good place to start.
Backed by a gooey and sun-kissed arrangement, Crutchfield’s enunciation feels like rolling down a hill in perfect weather. Saint Cloud often sounds rejuvenating — it’s an album concerned with putting past fears to rest. But “Lilacs” takes place mid-struggle, on one of those days when the clear-headedness that sobriety provides doesn’t feel so clear. Crutchfield falls back into old habits — a fiery temper, a wandering attention span — and her constantly spinning turntable of a mind replays her own anxieties. “If I’m a broken record, write it in the dust, babe,” she sings in the chorus. “I’ll fill myself back up like I used to do.”
But “Lilacs” is a love song, both to the idea of getting better and to herself. It’s bright and bubbling and warm. As corny as it sounds, it’s a song about the overwhelming power of positive thinking, about being able to recognize the bad parts of yourself and accept them. The analogy that Crutchfield uses, of flowers drinking up any and all water provided to them, goes both ways. We can’t help but inject fears into our systems — it’s natural, healthy even to recognize when things aren’t OK. But “Lilacs” makes me believe that, with the right mindset, you can get through almost anything.
It’s taken a long time for Crutchfield to come to that conclusion, and sometimes it feels like she’s only just now getting started. “Lilacs” is certainly a breakthrough of some sort, a bright and airy song in a discography that often focuses on the darkness of human nature. I’m not sure what it’s leading to, but I know that I’m eager to find out.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.