Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Waxahatchee Tigers Blood


As someone with such a deep reverence for Katie Crutchfield’s music, it has for some reason been difficult for me to find a way to actually write about Tigers Blood. It’s incredible, obviously, the sort of album that makes me tear up if I think about it too much. But it’s also something I’m reticent to poke at in fear of ruining the magic. In some ways, it feels like Crutchfield is making the music that she was always meant to make — the tangled punk poetry on Cerulean Salt, as much as I love it, seems slightly incongruous now. But it also sort of feels like the music that Waxahatchee has always made, honest and intimate and immediate. In this newer country-inflected sound, Crutchfield is at home: telling stories and setting scenes and letting some light into her often bleak, cynical worldview. The irregular edges of her early songs have fallen away; what was once muddy and indistinct is now clear.

If you loved Saint Cloud — and why would you not have? — then you will find a lot to love about Tigers Blood too. It’s very much a part of that radical reimagining of Waxahatchee, a refinement of the same sonic template. Crutchfield once again worked with producer Brad Cook, setting up shop at Sonic Ranch studios in Texas. Collaborators include Brad’s brother Phil, Spencer Tweedy, and of course MJ Lenderman, one of the forebears of indie rock’s most recent intersection with country music. It feels like Crutchfield has met the moment, or more so that the moment has met her. There are songs on Tigers Blood where she adopts a simmering folk ramble; others, like “Bored,” could almost pass for the ramshackle rock she has been making since her P.S. Eliot days. It all feels distinctly Crutchfield-ian, if you will — a songwriting voice that over the years has always felt so lived-in and authentic. These songs seem like they have always been around, filled with details that will leave your head spinning and your heart wrenching.

The steadiness with which Crutchfield has approached her reinvention is commendable. In interviews leading up to Tigers Blood, she has reiterated that she wanted to dismantle the myth of the tortured artist, the inclination that you have to be in distress to make profound art. That seems a bit like a something to say because you have to talk about something when doing press for an album. There’s no easily packaged narrative to Tigers Blood — Crutchfield’s not picking apart the wreckage of a toxic relationship like she did on the visceral, underrated Out In The Storm, and she’s not navigating nascent sobriety like she did on Saint Cloud. She’s settling in for the long haul of life, and that’s so rarely easy or well-defined.

There is still plenty of turmoil in these songs, as soft and honeyed as they can be. The memories of bad behavior linger at a distance; they are not a dark cloud threatening to overwhelm but rather something that can be conquered, examined, reminisced about. Take “Evil Spawn,” in its depiction of a codependent relationship that is fated to fail: “If we stand out in some wild city street/ Dodging every car, every thief and disease/ Catching tiny crumbs in the heartless breeze/ Say we’re tough as nails, say we’re both naive.” The song’s central refrain provides an adequate thesis for the sort of distance the album offers: “What you thought was enough now seems insane.” It’s about wanting something better for yourself, not letting others treat you the way you sometimes feel like you deserve to be treated.

Like the conceit of its lead single “Right Back To It,” the album keeps returning to this centering vision of clarity. On that track, a perfect love song, the verses stray into old habits (“If I swerve in and out of my lane/ Burning up an old flame/ Turn a jealous eye”) but the chorus goes, well, right back to it, embracing the comfort of someone you love and feel so sure will be there for you no matter what. On “Lone Star Lake,” another deeply romantic cut, Crutchfield proposes a “drive out to the only lake in Kansas,” but even in that solace and serenity, there’s a nagging sense that maybe it’s still not enough: “I get caught up in my thoughts/ For lack of a better cause/ My life’s been mapped out to a T/ But I’m always a little lost.”

The way Crutchfield uses perspective throughout the album, slips between I and you so it’s never entirely clear who she’s singing about, is masterful. Take album opener “3 Sisters,” which starts out as a roil and builds to a tour de force that wrangles in the whole backing band. “I pick you up inside a hopeless prayer/ I see you beholden to nothing/ I make a living crying it ain’t fair/ And not budging,” she sings, and then: “I don’t see why you would lie/ It was never the love you wanted/ It’s a state of mind/ You designed/ You get everything that you want.” Or on “Crimes Of The Heart,” the latest in a recent lineage of Crutchfield songs (see “The Eye“) where she interrogates what it means to be a songwriter, to use her emotions for the sake of art in a way that perhaps exploits or invalidates them: “In every crime of the heart/ You’ll rip yourself apart/ And it may bewilder a few, it’s an unpleasant view/ You’re an agent of truth/ Twisted up at the tail end/ You play the villain like a violin/ It comes from within/ Darkness you can befriend/ It comes from within.”

That darkness, despite the album’s even keel, still comes through. On the stunning “Burns Out At Midnight,” Crutchfield sings about her tendency to let her anger get the best of her. She picks a fight for no good reason, says mean things just because she can. She knows the power that her words can hold, to harm and to hurt, and her pen has never been sharper. See:

i get home from working hard, honey
state the obvious & watch it work its way in
we been checked out, chasing the money
i been trying to tell ’em it ain’t no way to live
& we go another round, i got nothing to say
it don’t make a difference
might be good on my own, but i ain’t running away
i wanna chase it to the end
when i’m seeing a vision

Increasingly, Crutchfield is using her talent with words to heal, or at least chart out some new emotional territory in the attempt. Tigers Blood reflects a certain kind of stability that, if we’re lucky, starts to form as we get older. Sometimes it can be hard to maintain it, other times it feels good to embrace it. Tigers Blood is self-reflexive but not in the harrowing way that Waxahatchee’s music has so often been in the past. It’s light, it’s airy, it’s a joy to hang out with — it’s the sort of album you can throw on at a dinner party with friends (complimentary), but it’s also an album that, if you’re really paying attention, has such a depth of feeling that it can take your breath away. I’m in awe of it.

There’s a group singalong that happens on the album’s closing title track that gives me chills: “I held it like a penny I found/ It might bring me something, it might weigh me down.” It’s ambiguous what exactly Crutchfield is trying to hold onto so tightly — her sobriety, her artistic drive, her desire to love and be loved — and it’s unclear whether it’ll ever really, truly be enough. But it’ll do for now.

Tigers Blood is out 3/22 via Anti-.

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