The Anniversary

Cerulean Salt Turns 10

Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni

“This is the first record I ever made as a person who gets depressed,” Katie Crutchfield said a couple years ago, as she prepared to play through Cerulean Salt in full for a pandemic-era livestream. The Alabama-born musician had been writing and performing for nearly a decade in and around Birmingham before releasing her sophomore album as Waxahatchee, but Cerulean Salt was the first album that she made away from her hometown. “All of these songs are about my childhood and teen years,” she added a little later on. “And I feel like I’m just now realizing that I was really homesick when I wrote this.”

Though she was only in her early twenties when Cerulean Salt came out, the album does not feel like the work of a novice. Crutchfield channeled the isolation of being young and missing someplace familiar into songs that are raw and bone-deep weary, confident in their sparse execution. There’s nothing complicated about Waxahatchee’s music here — it’s rudimentary, skeletal, but its unassuming nature elevates it. It almost sounds like an album your friend down the street could have made, if your friend down the street happened to be a genius-level songwriter. Cerulean Salt still comes across like a secret, an intimacy forged between singer and listener.

Crutchfield formed her first band while she was still in high school with her twin sister Allison; after a few years, they started the ramshackle cult favorite pop-punk band P.S. Eliot, which disbanded around the same time that Crutchfield put out her first solo album, American Weekend, a collection of crackling acoustic songs self-recorded in a week while holed up in her parent’s cabin on Waxahatchee Creek during a snowstorm. When American Weekend was released at the beginning of 2012, it took a few months to catch on, but by the time Cerulean Salt came out — 10 years ago this Sunday — people were paying attention to what Crutchfield would do next.

After she recorded American Weekend, Crutchfield moved to Brooklyn and then to Philadelphia. Cerulean Salt was recorded in the basement of a Philadelphia house where she lived at the time with her sister and a couple of bandmates. The album, though utilizing a full band this time around, still feels hushed and immediate — the drums are muted, the guitars whisper and creak. It beefs up Crutchfield’s songs just enough to feel transformative, while staying true to the bare bones of those earliest Waxahatchee recordings: confessional folk songs decked out in slightly scuzzier packaging.

A few years ago when I made a list of the best Waxahatchee songs (an unenviable task), I had a hard time picking which Cerulean Salt songs to include — not only because they’re all excellent, but because they complement each other so well, gain power from their proximity to one another. Outside of the tracks that diverge from the sonic template — the careening rush of “Coast To Coast,” the scraping immediacy of “You’re Damaged” — the songs bleed together, muddy and elliptical compositions that are tantalizing in their brevity. The melodies are unassuming but sticky; the hooks mainly come from how Crutchfield phrases something, a syllable pulled out a beat too long or a gutting line that gets lodged in your head.

Her songs feel like they’ve “been in tangled envisioning,” as Crutchfield sings on one of them, lost in flickering memories and hoping to sift through them enough to come away with a sort of bleary clarity. She documents a stumbling adolescence against the backdrop of a balmy Southern youth and beyond, into new experiences that can’t help but be colored by what came before. “I’m ruled by seasons and sadness that’s inexplicable,” she sings on “Swan Dive,” one of the album’s most enduring songs. “We will find a way to be lonely any chance we get.” When you’re young, you get distracted searching for connection in any way you can, drowning yourself in drink, socializing to avoid an emptiness that’s gnawing at you. The scenes that Crutchfield sets are quotidian. On “Lips And Limbs,” a party spills out into the street, but how she describes it is sparkling:

Could you be extraordinary?
Stems and seeds, bucket seats
This house is full of slurred speech
You’re tormented, I watch you bleed
We are shimmering bright
Stagger through uncharted parks
The stars could be tawdry streetlights
And we don’t have too much to say
I can’t feel a thing

Crutchfield’s songs are urgent; even when they’re looking backward, they sound like they’re taking place in an everlasting present. But with a decade of hindsight, they gain new layers as snapshots of Crutchfield’s past. A lot of the songs on Cerulean Salt are about addiction and substance abuse, something she’d come at from the other side, now sober, on 2020’s Saint Cloud. “I had a dream last night/ We had hit separate bottoms,” she sings on “Lively.” “You yell right in my face/ And I poison myself numb.” She writes, with just the glimmer of a realization that’s still on the horizon, about how her worst tendencies fuel unhealthy habits. “If you think that I’ll wait forever, you are right and/ I’ll give you everything you wanted if I can,” she sings on “Blue Pt. II,” twisted but hopelessly romantic. A couple albums later, on Out In The Storm, she was indignant about the way she was encouraged, and allowed herself, to become so small: “I endured your criticism, self-loathing, and all your doubt/ I held you up above myself trying to ride it out.”

That growth is still to come; on Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield sings like you’re in the moment with her, making the same bad decisions and freewheeling through the same dark spirals. That immediacy and deep connection can be attributed to the words that she uses, of course, and also how she delivers them — just one example: the way she sings “embarrassed” in “Hollow Bedroom” mewling it out to hush the sounds of intimacy leaking in from the other room. It also has something to do with when she chooses to be quiet and when she opts to go loud — how brash the drums are on “Misery Over Dispute,” which feels defiant as Crutchfield sings about how she “whispered and walked on eggshells just to…” These choices feel instinctive, but they remain brilliant.

Cerulean Salt might seem simple on the surface, but it has so much depth. When it came out, I was only a couple years younger than Crutchfield was when she wrote these songs. If you are 20 and hear Cerulean Salt for the first time, I think that something rips in you that never really closes again. The album treats the listlessness and malaise you feel at that age with a poetic reverence. There’s nothing like that recognition. And nothing can compare to listening to Cerulean Salt now, 10 years older and hopefully a little wiser, but the tug of your younger self and all your mistakes is still strong. It can drown you if you let it.

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