Katie Crutchfield needed a reset. When she wrote Saint Cloud, her fifth album as Waxahatchee, she had recently made the decision to stop drinking. The music industry has a notoriously party-centric culture, and as a longtime touring musician, getting sober would be a big change in her life – but it also appears to have been the catalyst she needed to make one of the best records in her extensive discography.
Saint Cloud is a roving record, an extended travellin’ song that unfolds over 11 sunbathed tracks, and stretches out all the way around the USA, from West Memphis to New York City. Waxahatchee has always been a dynamic project, rooted in the specificity of places and scenes (“Waxahatchee” itself is the name of the creek behind Crutchfield’s childhood home), but Saint Cloud takes that forward-moving spirit and channels it through the grand tradition of roaming Americana. The result is a far mellower Waxahatchee sound, as Crutchfield thrillingly embraces her voice’s natural country-adjacent lilt.
On “Oxbow,” “Fire” and “Lilacs,” the deliberately crunchy riffs of her last few albums soften down to buttery melody; on the title track, which swells with roomy production that makes Crutchfield sound like she is singing in the middle of an empty field, she leans into folk (her ability to craft a hook, however, as we hear on “Hell” and “Can’t Do Much,” mercifully seems to have survived her minor sonic transition.)
This slight aesthetic turn – to something a little gentler, more reflective – tracks alongside Saint Cloud’s subject matter, which concerns this important juncture in Crutchfield’s life, and questions of what we have to discard in order to get better. The record sees her looking both to the future and the past, and in doing the latter, she makes some interesting parallels with parts of Waxahatchee’s earlier catalogue.
There are stylistic nods to old tracks (the album’s second track “Can’t Do Much” sounds like Out In the Storm’s “Never Been Wrong” riding a wild pony), and her winning habit of referring to her friends and family by name in her songs proliferates on “Witches.” Most strikingly, however, there are a few moments on Saint Cloud that feel like Crutchfield reaching a hand back through time to connect with the younger self who made the first Waxahatchee record, American Weekend.
Both American Weekend (released in 2012) and Saint Cloud are musically stripped-back in ways that the albums between them tended to avoid. The first was made when Crutchfield was a DIY musician best known for the band P.S. Eliot, which she fronted with her twin sister Allison (of the much loved Swearin’), while the simplicity of the fifth came out of a different type of need, one that called for the intimacy of her earlier work.
More than anything, that intimacy is trained in on Crutchfield herself. As unflinchingly as she did when making American Weekend (“I tell you not to love me / But I still kiss you when I want to,” she sings on “Bathtub,” which remains one of the all time great Waxahatchee songs), Saint Cloud sees her examining her shortcomings and her needs once more – only this time with more compassion for herself.
On “War,” Crutchfield recounts her behaviour in an argument: ”In my head there’s a war room / Keeping score, ripe to exhume / I’ll come in hot, I’ll fill up the room / Possessed and consumed, it’s true,” she sings, typically self-critical. While past songs would have focussed on these negative traits, lingering in the bathtub so long that her skin might have wrinkled, here she lets us in on her reasons, showing vulnerability: “But I mostly keep to myself / What I’m going through / I’m in a war with myself / It’s got nothing to do with you.” The single “Fire,” which she wrote in transit over the Mississippi River, is a similar kindness: “If I could love you unconditionally I / Could iron out the edges of the darkest sky.” She is singing to herself.
Discussing Saint Cloud, Crutchfield has said, “I think all of my records are turbulent and emotional, but this one feels like it has a little dose of enlightenment. It feels a little more calm and less reckless.” It is an album about self-acceptance, and about renewal. The references to death on the final track Saint Cloud – “when I go / Look back at me, embers aglow” – could just as well refer to a rebirth; the end of an old life and the start of a new one. Ultimately this is the story of this whole record. It is Crutchfield breathing in, turning around, allowing the sun onto her face. It sounds wonderful.