Katie Crutchfield has traveled a long way in a few short years — much further than the geographical distance from Waxahatchee Creek in her native Alabama to the home studio and elementary school gymnasium in small-town Holbrook, Long Island, where she recorded her new album, Ivy Tripp. By now, most are familiar with the songwriter’s seemingly overnight ascent from writing and recording her trembling debut, American Weekend, while snowed in for a week in her parents’ home to becoming a critical darling following the release of 2013’s Cerulean Salt. But it feels cheap to measure Crutchfield’s journey as Waxahatchee in terms of glowing notices, the “right kind” of buzz, or social media upticks. Turn on those records and she’s still that closeted, bruised voice inching out onto an emotional ledge (“I think I love you”) only to immediately retreat (“But you’ll never find out”), or a dissatisfied twentysomething calculating that she is “30 percent dead” and lamenting, “We’d never see the same blue sky.” She’s tapped into the fact that while stumbling through one’s 20s may seem like small steps in grander schemes, they’re giant, confusing leaps for the person actually negotiating those years. On Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield creeps further into adulthood, expanding both her outlook and sound without losing the intimacy that endeared her to us in the first place.
“Ivy Tripp is about directionlessness,” Crutchfield revealed in a recent interview. “People wandering through life or trying to find things that make them happy without conforming to the structure previous generations had.” While Crutchfield insists these songs are more observational than personal, it’s difficult to believe that she (or anyone her age) doesn’t face many of the same pressures and dilemmas as her protagonists. “I’m not trying to have it all,” she concludes on forthright opener “Breathless”, presumably rejecting the modern fairy tale of marriage, kids, and living happily ever after. More compellingly, though, she makes us understand that we’re witnessing a person on a new wavelength — one at odds with what we’ve been told we should want for ourselves. “You see me how I wish I was,” Crutchfield admits, “but I’m not trying to be seen.”
There’s a profound pain running through Ivy Tripp as these characters search for (or drift toward) what they think happiness might be. On album standout “Air”, Crutchfield’s protagonist sounds bitter as she bides her time in a doomed relationship (“I left you out like a carton of milk”), but the chorus (“You are patiently giving me everything that I will never need”) suggests a more complicated dynamic: real promise dashed by repeated disappointment. Again, there’s that feeling of disconnection, of being perpetually mismatched in all aspects of life, love or otherwise, while seeking happiness. Crutchfield brings us to care for those whose problems many would shrug off as mere growing pains.
Having nakedly introduced herself to the world with a guitar, microphone, and eight-track, Waxahatchee will always garner attention for any expansion of her lineup or gear setup. Cerulean Salt cohorts Keith Spencer and Kyle Gilbride return on Ivy Tripp to help Crutchfield pick up where a track like “Coast to Coast” left off on her last record. The endless comparisons to ‘90s alt rock progenitors on two-minute bursts like “Poison” and “The Dirt” are warranted, but these cuts are far from knockoffs. In the time it takes to brush your teeth, Crutchfield’s band knocks out a single like “Under a Rock”, delightfully scathing and melodic, the band crashing in just before she cuts down her antagonist with a dismissive “Now, you’re somebody else’s mess tonight.” It’s familiar, but somehow entirely her own. However, Ivy Tripp sees Crutchfield doing more than burying her arrangements inside sloshing cocoons of guitar fuzz. She surfaces atop persistent droning keyboards (“Breathless”), girlishly duets with an upbeat drum machine (“La Loose”), and repeats the putdown “You’re less than me/ I am nothing” as the surrounding arrangement crumbles at her feet (“<”), each effect an asset and a choice difficult to imagine Crutchfield making a record ago.
As always, though, a Waxahatchee album hinges on Crutchfield’s voice. It’s what draws us in. When she sings, we hear somebody we know: a lover, an ex, a friend, ourselves. We connect to a feeling, even if the full scene never develops, like the photograph mentioned in “Summer of Love”. “The colors allure me, but I can’t make out/ A face in the picture of palm trees,” sings Crutchfield over a straightforward strum. “The summer of love is a photo of us,” she repeats, relating something both fleeting and enduring in the same image. On “Half Moon”, set to a wistful piano, she delivers short, abrupt lines (“We fuck up our rhythm/ This idea is a curse/ I invite myself in/ And I think I kissed you first”), each feeling like a jab in the chest as she pieces a memory together. Then she trails off as she sings, “Our love tastes like sugar, but it pulls all the life out of me.” This moment encapsulates Ivy Tripp as well as any on the album. It’s a record about sorting through what we think we want, what we actually want, and what we need. And the latter won’t always taste sweetest.
Essential Tracks: “Air”, “Summer of Love”, and “Half Moon”