Vulnerable and incisive introspection.
One of the last things we need in 2017 is another retro-tinged album about a breakup. These days, it seems like every other record mines the late 20th century for familiar sounds to repackage. An album promoted as recorded “amidst the dissolution of a noxious relationship” runs the risk of coming off as inconsequential navel-gazing when contrasted against the current backdrop of our toxic national discourse and miasmic global crises. And yet on her fourth album, Out in the Storm, Alabama-born singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield, the creative force behind indie outfit Waxahatchee, offers the kind of vulnerable, incisive introspection that is intensely personal and yet widely relatable, elevating the relationship concerns of a twentysomething into a far more sweeping form of catharsis.
Despite firmly-planted roots in ‘90s alt-rock, Out in the Storm’s retro leaning isn’t a final destination in itself but rather the emotive vehicle Crutchfield uses to deliver her raw sentiments on a love turned sour. Unlike recent projects by many of her indie contemporaries, there aren’t synthesizer-fueled bells and whistles on this album. Instead, Crutchfield keeps it more organic, recording the entire album live with her full band. Produced by John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr. and South Youth, among others), this new Waxahatchee album relies heavily on guitar, offering a mixture of grungy crunch and shoegaze fuzz tempered by gentler acoustic moments. This approach also gives non-guitar tracks that much more contrasting impact, as on the contemplative “Recite Remorse,” where simple, long-held organ notes back Crutchfield’s ruminations about her tendency to be drawn to condescending, “big fish” types.
But recognizing her own flawed perceptions for what they truly are is only half the battle; Crutchfield also revels in the moments in which she became empowered enough to transcend them. On the gorgeous, gently-strummed “Sparks Fly,” she sings about loosening relationship tethers and fearlessly putting herself out into the world, embracing the independence to discover the neglected part of herself that’s “raw like wire, electrified.” On the similarly paced “8 Ball,” amid brief flashes of pedal steel, Crutchfield croons about a desire to unabashedly “drink too much” and “cause a big scene,” both as a liberated means of blowing off steam and in retaliation against the constraints of expectations by a romantic partner.
It’s the more raucous numbers, however, that really leave a lasting mark. When Crutchfield sings, “I spent all my time learning how to defeat/You at your own game, it’s embarrassing” on opening track “Never Been Wrong” she may as well be laying down a thesis statement for an entire album about recognizing the pitfalls of losing ourselves within our partners. The thundering drums and distortion-laden guitar squall also set the tone for an album that, despite its moments of contemplative calm, often spills over into a cathartic release, perhaps no more pronounced than on the fuzzed-out “Hear You,” as she bluntly sings, “I don’t want to/Dry your tears.”
Out in the Storm isn’t about heartache or loss, and it’s not exactly about finding oneself through triumphantly breaking free, either. Instead, Crutchfield has released a breakup album in which she refuses to sugarcoat the fact that most relationships end badly and most of us would rather lie to ourselves than admit that love fades.