Two years ago, Katie Crutchfield reflected on Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which the Waxahatchee frontwoman declared her “favorite album of all time,” on its 20th anniversary. “Her words are simple, her phrases are short but they fill you up juxtaposing truth and fable,” Crutchfield wrote. Likewise, Crutchfield’s words are simple and her phrases are short, but also like Williams, she sings her stories in a way that can make you feel like a character in them. Even if they haven’t shared Crutchfield’s specific experiences, most people can relate to the universal emotional themes expressed in her songs. You’ve likely felt what she’s felt, whether it’s anxiety or ennui or heartbreak. On Saint Cloud, her dazzling fifth record as Waxahatchee, Crutchfield turns over a new leaf, writing about forgiveness and self-healing. The result is the best album of her career, and arguably the best album of the year so far.

From its first moments, Saint Cloud announces itself as a much different beast than its predecessor, Out in the Storm. Gone are the tempestuous, overdriven riffs that recalled Neil Young and ‘90s indie rock; in their place are twangy guitars and gentle pianos, both of the acoustic and electric variety. With its burbling synthesizer and drums so puffy you could practically use them as a pillow, opener “Oxbow” sounds closer to country than anything Crutchfield has previously laid to tape, but she remains as warm as ever, especially as she sings the song’s final line—“I want it all”—over and over again like a mantra.

It’s a line that “communicate[s] a struggle,” yet feels “hopeful and big and beautiful,” as Crutchfield told Pitchfork in a song-by-song breakdown of Saint Cloud. There are times on the album when Crutchfield’s lyrics feel more vulnerable than hopeful or big. Saint Cloud is her first album since she quit drinking in 2018, and the struggles that come with that change—not just staying sober, but making peace with herself—is all over the lyric sheet. “I get so angry, baby, at something you might say,” she sings on “Lilacs,” a sparkling country-rock standout. She puts the worst of herself on display on “Hell” and “War,” vowing “I’ll put you through hell” and “I’ll keep lying to myself/ …I’m in a war with myself.” And yet, “Lilacs,” “Hell” and “War” pair those ugly thoughts with gorgeous instrumentation.

Of course, Saint Cloud’s hopeful and big moments are more than enough to take your breath away. Crutchfield has described “Can’t Do Much” as “an extremely unsentimental love song,” but she sings “I want you / All the time” and “Love you ‘til the day I die” with such earnestness that it feels like the listener is hearing them for the first time. “The Eye” is a slightly more sentimental love song, but it’ll likely be the first time you hear a line like “You watch me like I’m a jet stream / A scientific cryptogram lit up behind the sunbeam,” as vivid and cryptic as love itself. And on “Fire”—described as “an anthem for self-acceptance and self-love”—Crutchfield assures herself of what she could do if she could just love herself: “If I could love you unconditionally / I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky.”

Saint Cloud saves its best for last, with two of its final three songs ranking among the strongest that Crutchfield has ever written. From its first verse to its last, “Arkadelphia” paints an astonishingly intimate picture of Birmingham, where Crutchfield grew up—the American flags, the five-dollar bags of tomatoes, the deep red clay earth—and of a person she knows from there, who shared her struggle with addiction. Just as devastating is “Ruby Falls,” written for another friend, rendering his life and death in piercing, empathetic detail.

These intimate revelations have long served as the linchpins of Crutchfield’s finest songs. They don’t just take you to places you’ve never been and introduce you to people you’ve never met, they make those places and people feel familiar, like a life you could have lived. Saint Cloud marks Crutchfield’s evolution from gifted songwriter into masterful storyteller, standing shoulder to guitar-slung shoulder beside Lucinda Williams and Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. It is the sound of the rainbow that follows the storm.

Intimate revelations have long served as the linchpins of Katie Crutchfield's finest songs.
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Heavenly Country

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