The Lowdown: Katie Crutchfield, also known as Waxahatchee, shifts her voice and shows her versatility more than ever on her new record, Saint Cloud. Her fifth album pays tribute to her Alabama roots, taking guitar sounds and instrumentation from country and folk to create a powerful salute to Americana. Saint Cloud’s distinct sounds paint pictures of staring out at distant views, skin reflecting gold in the Southern sun, and it elicits the now-delayed passage of growing up and becoming self-aware.
We can document Crutchfield’s growth with every Waxahatchee album. Each new record is a level-up. Musically, of course, but it’s safe to say every collection of songs acts as a vehicle for the messy, tangled phases of emotions each of us face from adolescence into our late 20s and early 30s. Crutchfield came onto the scene as Waxahatchee in 2012 with her debut, American Weekend, which she recorded in only a week while holed up in her bedroom, earning her the genre label of “sad girl bedroom rock.”
American Weekend no doubt acted as a guiding mirror for many young women in the midst of experiencing lust for the first time, beginning to enjoy sex, and confusing the two for love. That album and its follow-up, Cerulean Salt, are records of first reactions; they sing songs of “flowing conversations” and “counting shooting stars and catfish” but never make wishes. They chronicle the imagined missed connections of a meek, shy teen girl and watch her develop into a reactive, vaporous young adult who is “loud.” The lyrics can be listened to and recited like bible verses. The feelings in these records follow that girl into her early 20s, where she “embraced all [her] vices” and “fished for compliments” from all the wrong people.
Fast-forward to 2015’s Ivy Tripp, a record of “what’s next?” that carries a deep pain and anxiety of searching for what it means to be happy. After that, Crutchfield released Out in the Storm, a record about that first truly debilitating heartbreak. And three years later in 2020, we have Saint Cloud. This record looks back at the last decade and unpacks the idea that maybe all our past behaviors were acts of self-destruction and that the anger we felt at the world was actually directed at ourselves.
The Good: In the break between records, Crutchfield made the decision to get sober. Substances have always played a part in Waxahatchee songs. She would depict herself stumbling through circumstances and sang about her own self-destructive tendencies without really understanding how they can fuel themselves or how they can be something you can try to change, a feeling that may feel all too familiar to some. Each Waxahatchee record talks about an idea of what love is, and it’s often a road Crutchfield explores in very personal, nuanced ways, but on Saint Cloud, it’s apparent and a refreshing plea to love herself. She sings: “If I could love you unconditionally, I/ Could iron out the edges of the darkest sky,” on the record’s third track, “Fire”, which echoes the notion that it’s easier to love someone and accept love when you have a basic admiration for yourself.
Musically, her debut record was overpowered with the fuzzy drip of reverb and lo-fi, scuzzy instrumentation, but over the years as Crutchfield grew personally, so did her music. She added people to her band, instruments, and allowed her music to evolve the same way she did. Saint Cloud is more delicate, vibrant, and more cerebral than any previous Waxahatchee record. Fourth track “Lilacs” is a gorgeous and fundamental Waxahatchee song that reminds us that being self-aware and sustaining clearheadedness isn’t easy, and it’s told through swirling harmonies and sharp prose. Crutchfield regularly pulls from country music and Americana and embraces the twangy guitars and heavy characteristics of her native home of Alabama. For example, on second track “Can’t Do Much”, Crutchfield muses about how easy it is to fall infatuated with someone and does so with the help of burgeoning drums and an echoey sing-talk that perfectly complement each other.
Crutchfield is a seasoned songwriter and is able to pack so much to dissect in every line of her songs. On Saint Cloud, her lyrics are denser and more refined than ever before as she reminds you that she is a force to be reckoned with: “I leave my home desolate, but not alone/ I have a gift, I’ve been told, for seeing what’s there” (“The Eye”); she acknowledges her faults and is learning to live with them. Sobriety is just a step on this journey of self-awareness, or rather it’s the switch that triggers the transparency needed to learn to trust yourself and your emotions.
The Bad: We often cross our fingers that a potentially wonderful album won’t stumble as it nears the finish line. Luckily, the most stunning recordings on Saint Cloud are left for its final act. The last few songs transform Crutchfield from seasoned singer-songwriter to poet and storyteller. The songs turn outward from ruminating in one’s own feelings into snapshots and scrapbooks of the places that were central to her self-realization. “Arkadelphia”, named after a road in Birmingham, slows down just enough to embrace the scenery along the road of Crutchfield’s hometown: “I lose my grip, I drive out far/ Past fireworks at the old trailer park/ And folding chairs, American flags/ Selling tomatoes for five bucks a bag.” Crutchfield, the poet, is able to take these simple details and evoke the universal feeling of looking back with nostalgia to a time of being young and stuck in your hometown, aching to get out. There’s something beautiful about adolescence and the hope we felt back then.
However, the strongest visual may be on the album’s closer, “St. Cloud”, which is named after her father’s Florida hometown and captures her time spent in New York City. “Where do you go when your mind starts to lose its perfected shape?” she sings, describing feeling minuscule in comparison to the city fading away from her line of sight on the M train. “Virtuosic, idealistic, musing a fall from grace.” Again, her words painting an image of a train scene we can all relate to, Crutchfield realizes it’s time for her to grow up.
Verdict: Each Waxahatchee album feels deeply personal; however, on Saint Cloud, Katie Crutchfield creates something incredibly authentic. She embraces the messiness of growing up and taking responsibility for one’s actions and composes the apex of everything she’s accomplished thus far. Saint Cloud offers us the best possible version of Crutchfield she could possibly give us. The record is made by someone who was always whispering, finally having the confidence and courage to speak up and sing unrestrained. It demands to be listened to.
Essential Tracks: “St. Cloud”, “Fire”, and “Arkadelphia”