The title of Katie Crutchfield’s new album as Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm, might ring familiar to her longtime fans. After all, it was a snowstorm that once left the songwriter stranded in her parents’ Alabama home, an imposed seclusion that directly led to her project’s brilliant, trembling debut, American Weekend. The songs on that softly strummed record, according to Crutchfield, were about “being young and having a clumsy moment learning how not to be in a relationship anymore.” It’s a breakup record, sure, but the type of youthful parting and pain that we can look back on and almost smile at knowingly years later. There’s far more peril out in the titular storm of Crutchfield’s new album, a set of 10 autobiographical snapshots not about coming in from the storm to find someone waiting, but fleeing the bad weather altogether and, in the process, finding herself all over again.
Crutchfield opts not to call Out in the Storm a breakup record, perhaps not to pigeonhole the album; however, the beauty of breakup records is that while they often resonate, they’ve also yet to exhaust the different types of anger, devastation, and even liberation that may coincide with the dissolution of a relationship. Here, Crutchfield taps into the familiar rage we’ve all felt, but she doesn’t stop there. While aggressive garage rockers like “Never Been Wrong” and “No Question” can be scathing and sonically sound like a fist through a plaster wall, they’re as much about her admitting the shame she felt due to her ex’s put-downs. Likewise, the airy amble of “8 Ball” doesn’t merely portray a condescending boyfriend who draws bright red circles around all her flaws and fuck-ups; it’s a song that instead sees Crutchfield finally embracing those same messy moments and accepting herself as good enough anyway.
Lyrically, Crutchfield returns to the levels of earnestness and vulnerability of American Weekend and Cerulean Salt, only with a more polished gift for economy and tackling her openness. On “Brass Beam”, she snarls, “I had to go/ I put it out like a cigarette,” branding the image of a smoking butt being trampled before elaborating, “I’d never be a girl you’d like or trust or you’d respect.” These lyrics reveal the meticulous word choice of a poet paired with the frankness of an artist with a punk pedigree. Again, on “Recite Remorse”, she balances the ability to describe her paralysis as a “rerun” with openly divulging her own insecurities and habit of selling herself short in relationships: “See, I always gravitate to those who are unimpressed.” Even as she turns decidedly inward, Crutchfield remains increasingly relatable. She’s that poet friend who could bury her thoughts in overwrought imagery but would rather you know how she feels.
And that feeling is surprisingly jubilant for a breakup record. Part of that stems from Crutchfield having tackled her relationship after it had ended. These songs come from her diary-like memories and capture the moments of shame, clarity, and courage that it took for her to finally escape a toxic relationship. In that sense, Out in the Storm really is a record about freeing oneself rather than someone painfully recalling or reliving their recent trappings. One of the truly beautiful, liberating moments of the record comes on “Sparks Fly”. The song recalls a night out in Berlin with her twin sister and fellow artist, Allison Crutchfield, in which Katie realizes she’s fading within her unhealthy relationship, reduced to seeing herself through the condescending gaze of others who aren’t good for her. But then she grounds herself in the moment: “Tonight I’ll laugh, I’ll say whatever I want/ Stay in the bar ‘til the sun comes up/ And I see myself through my sister’s eyes/ I’m a live wire, electrified.” It’s such a rare moment for a pop song to capture. The sparks flying, of course, aren’t romantic, but a recharged electricity that can only come from within and a little help from her best friend.
Like on Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield has arrived at a place as a songwriter, musician, and bandleader where she can make a collage-like record that draws from all the stepping stones of previous albums. Some critics will point out that she adds a lot of production polish and flourishes with the help of producer John Agnello without breaking new ground like the poppy “La Loose” or full-throated “Air” did on her last record. That’s fair, but the vocal accents on the burning “Silver” and naked, confessional atmospherics during the opening of “Recite Remorse” more than atone for any extra production elbow grease. Even slight strummer “A Little More” finds Crutchfield trying on a softer, elongated vocal with a convincing country lean should she ever contemplate that direction.
“I laid down next to you/ For three years shedding my skin,” Crutchfield sings matter-of-factly over a steady strum on closer “Fade”. “Dreaming about the potential/ The person I could have been.” It’s a devastating analysis – that squandering of precious time and self – but one most of us can relate to. Crutchfield’s gift remains her honesty, her generosity to lay pieces of herself out on the carpet and allow listeners to pick and choose which scraps they recognize in themselves. While her songwriting hasn’t quite made the same leaps that prior records have shown, Out in the Storm offers a unique perspective: that of someone happier and stronger for the pain endured.
Essential Tracks: “Sparks Fly”, “Silver”, and “8 Ball”