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Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud (Album Review)

Wednesday, 01 April 2020 Written by Ben Gladman

Photo: Molly Matalon

In the decade since she began performing as Waxahatchee, much of Katie Crutchfield’s catalogue has shied away from the country music that informed her childhood, assuming a darker, punkier sound more redolent of her former band P.S. Eliot.

But her fifth LP, ‘Saint Cloud’, finds her embracing her roots by serving up a gorgeous slice of Americana. “[I am not] fighting with my melodic tendencies or my more traditional-sounding voice,” Crutchfield said pre-release, and there are references here to Neil Young and Gillian Welch, along with a southern twang that on previous releases Crutchfield made efforts to hide.

Instrumentally, her palette is also more traditional. With the exception of a few production choices (such as the glitchy keys on opening song Oxbow), acoustic and clean electric guitars dominate, with just the gentlest hint of fuzz.  

Crutchfield began writing the record in 2018, shortly after the decision to get sober. Most of the songs here sound clearer and calmer than ever before; rarely does the album break out of a steady canter. As Crutchfield revealed in an interview with Pitchfork’s Quinn Moreland: “Forcing myself to slow down was the first step.” 

Songs like Oxbow, Lilacs, and Fire, all use natural imagery to symbolise this change of pace: “And the lilacs drink the water / Marking the slow, slow, slow passing of time.” There is a strong sense of a new beginning, and all the hope and worry that this entails. Whenever the lyrics take a more difficult turn, Crutchfield manages to include a ray of sunshine. Gone are the days of her last record, ‘Out in the Storm’, where heartbreak and chaos reigned. Here, setbacks are learned from and then brushed aside.

That is not to say that ‘Saint Cloud’ is without its darkness. Especially on the back half of the record, Crutchfield addresses addiction explicitly. Arkadelphia and Ruby Falls both tell the tale of a friend who overdosed. The lyrics face up to death and destruction, deftly exploring ideas of friendship and fame. At one point Crutchfield even imagines her own eulogy: ‘If I burn out like a lightbulb / They'll say, "She wasn't meant for that life."’

Crutchfield leaves the slowest, most contemplative song for last. The title track is sparse and lo-fi, allowing the listener to focus on its poetic lyricism. Despite its melancholy edge, looking back on the day with a tired sigh, the song has its own sense of warmth and beauty: “And when when I go, when I go / Look back at me, embers aglow.” This is an album of emotional maturity, and a brilliantly articulated statement on a bittersweet life, full of hope and beauty despite its struggles.

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