On “Lilacs”, the second single off Saint Cloud, Katie Crutchfield threads lyrics together like beads on a string. “And the lilacs drank the water, and the lilacs die,” she sings, her tongue gliding over the words, “And the lilacs drank the water, marking the slow, slow, passing of time.” It’s her own take on Sprechgesang or “speak-singing”, her voice hitting each pitch and then quickly falling away to make its own lilting fun.
Saint Cloud, out this Friday on Merge Records, is the fifth album from Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee after the creek that laps at the edges of her parents’ lakeside house close to Birmingham, Alabama. Crutchfield has been making and releasing music, often alongside her twin sister Allison, since she was 14, emerging out of her hometown’s chaotic punk scene, and then settling down into Philadelphia’s unpretentious DIY community – out of which have come Mitski, (Sandy) Alex G, the War on Drugs and Hop Along. On Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee moves away from the full sound of her excellent previous record Out in the Storm. She is still backed by a band – an organ, keys, and all manner of guitars pepper this album – but she trims her songs back to their core elements, giving the record, her best to date, a classic Americana feel which puts her brilliant songwriting front and centre.
Crutchfield has said she started writing Saint Cloud in the period immediately following her decision to get sober. So she pores over the stories and characters of her past, in an attempt to find peace in the present. In “Ruby Falls”, as well as the waterfalls of Tennessee, she revisits New York City, the Mississippi Gulf and Waxahatchee Creek. It’s a slow ballad, the rhythm section plodding, but from her mouth Crutchfield wrangles the most unusual of sounds, consonants cascading into one another and vowels crunching into something strange and new. “I walked down East 7th Street”, she sings, anticipating the number of musicians who have sung a line much the same before her and so marking hers out with her inimitable delivery. She similarly has a knack for leaning in to cliché and then spinning it straight on its head: “You know you got a friend in me,” is the song’s penultimate line; “I’m an angler married to the sea” the sucker punch.
Waxahatchee songs tend to be short; the best fall close to the three-minute mark and rely on repeated refrains full of pain. Album opener “Oxbow” starts slow and steady, as Crutchfield stretches one-syllable words into three-note patterns. In its middle section, layered vocals skip over each other, and the song starts to feel chant-like (a quality that inhabits much of the record), forming a mantra for giving oneself up for love. “I want it all”, she repeats, round and round.
On “Can’t Do Much”, that desire turns to “I want you”. Crutchfield’s attempts at chronicling romance (she has been in a relationship with fellow musician and sometime collaborator Kevin Morby since 2017), hang at the perfect mid-point between bottomless longing and down-to-earth realism. She has said “Can’t Do Much” is “an extremely unsentimental love song… sort of like ‘it’s annoying that I love you so much’ – totally unromantic, which sort of makes it really romantic to me.” Its bright guitar and jangling drums give in to the charming ease of refrain: “Love you till the day I / Love you till the day I / Love you till the day I die”, she sings.
Crutchfield is prone to telling stories through light. The obliquely beautiful “Fire” is about watching the sun set over Memphis from the Mississippi River, but also about the shame of past mistakes. “If I burn out like a lightbulb / They’ll say she wasn’t meant for that life”, she mourns on “Arkadelphia Road”. At other times, as on “Hell”, it’s the song’s subject who is ablaze: “You illuminate me as I galvanise a flowery demise… / He’s a fire burning fast and so, so bright.” Throughout Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee takes scenes of pain and renders them hard and fast into songs that make that darkness sound light.