Album Review: Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud
Around eight or nine months ago, I reached out to an old friend1 of mine that I, aside from a vague idea of what each other had been up to via social media, more or less lost touch with, like, 13 or 14 years ago.
After a few sprawling DM exchanges on Twitter, the conversation moved to an email rapport that we, I think to the surprise of both of us, have managed to keep up for this long, and the conversation has recently spilled over into very brief back and forths over text messaging—usually regarding a music recommendation.
Because originally, nearly 20 years ago when we first met, we were ‘music friends.’
Until recently—as in a few weeks ago, when Kate, my friend, texted me to ask if I had listened to Saint Cloud, the most recent effort from Waxahatchee, that name—the name of Katie Crutchfield’s nearly decade old project—was always that; just a name. A name that I would see in headlines on the music websites that I would frequent, and I had truthfully never really given much of her canon a listen. But in the wake of Saint Cloud’s release, following the 8.7 it garnered on Pitchfork, as well as being mentioned in Hanif Aburraquib’s2 Instagram stories, this third co-sign from somebody who I know, with a discerning palate that I trust, was finally enough to get me to sit down with it.
There’s a night and day difference between Saint Cloud, and what Crutchfield achieves as a performer and songwriter across these 11 songs, in comparison to anything she’s done leading up to this, including her earliest, crudely recorded material that made up her debut, American Weekend, and even the most recent Waxahatchee LP, Out in The Storm, released less than three years ago.
Saying Saint Cloud sounds like it was made by a totally different artist is an understatement, but that’s not the point. And saying Saint Cloud is Cruthfield’s ‘country album,’ also misses the mark. Yes, it sound like what is commonly referred to as ‘Americana,’ and yes, there is a palpable twang in her voice the moment she opens her mouth on the song’s groove ladened opening track—a twang you may not have noticed on any of the previous Waxahatchee releases.
What Saint Cloud is, though, is a fiercely intelligent, robust record that sidesteps the idea of being an ‘homage,’ and instead serves as listening experience richly steeped in the exploration of pop music history. Folk, Americana, and a touch of 1970s and 80s Country and Western music converge with a contemporary aesthetic to make a transcendental, wildly honest, and human record that is surprisingly fun, but more importantly, thought provoking and vivid in its myriad emotions.
Is Katie Crutchfield….rapping?
She’s not, really, but kind of.
And this is the moment in the album—it happens early on, during Saint Cloud’s opening track, “Oxbow”—that I think I was already so taken with the record and convinced of its merit that I headed to the Merge Records website to order a copy.
But is Katie Crutchfield rapping?
No. She’s not really, but it’s a very surprising moment that comes in the very surprising and enormous opening track—the track, intentionally constructed this way as the album’s opening piece. It’s in “Oxbow”’s second verse when Crutchfield begins talk-singing, the cadence of her voice chopped up, with specific emphasis placed on where the words fall in with the song’s undeniable groove: “I’ll give it all to you for a while, that’s fine; a speck I the oxbow—depressing by design. If I go along with it, am I lying to you? Watching from a distance, whispering close about anything else, but it’s not that far…,” and it’s here where Crutchfield slides back into singing the song’s mantra—I want it all.
I hesitate to say that Saint Cloud is a concept album, but per Crutchfield’s dissection of the album’s larger themes in a Pitchfork interview, her ongoing issues with sobriety and addiction, as well as codependency, run throughout the record. The want for “it all” comes from her internalization of struggle and the need to communicate that in a way that still felt hopeful, big, and beautiful.
The ‘big’ and the ‘beautiful’ resonate right from the beginning. Saint Cloud is, even in its most intimate moments, an enormous sounding record with meticulous production values, capturing that warmth and crispness of country inspired music produced decades earlier; but even with as organic and impressive as this album sounds, and even with as infectious of pop songwriting as Crutchfield can steer herself into (the refrain of “Hell” comes to mind right away, as does “Lilacs”), Saint Cloud is the kind of album that, yes, it can be played loudly over your stereo and you can allow yourself to melt into the slinking grooves of “Oxbow” and “Fire,” but to really get the nuances and imagery of Crutchfield’s lyrics, it’s a record that, even with as big as it can sound, needs to be listened to closely with a very attentive ear and, perhaps, a set of headphones.
Saint Cloud is, as a whole, a number of things—outside of being an incredibly personal documentation of Crutchfield’s last year or so—one of the things that stands out almost immediately is that the album, at times, serves as love letter to the South. “It’s not what I wanted—it’s not as if we cry a river, call it rain,” she sings on the soulful, pleading, Rhodes piano led “Fire.” “West Memphis is on fire in the light of day.”
Or on the bleak recounting of addiction (not her own) on “Arkadelphia Road,” a real place in Crutchfield’s native Birmingham, Alabama, as well as “Ruby Falls.” On the former, “I lose my grip, I drive out far pass fireworks at the old trailer park—and folding chairs, American flags”; and on the latter, “When the picture fades, the years will make us calm. I’ll sing a song at your funeral—laid in the Mississippi Gulf, or back home at Waxahatchee Creek. You know you got a friend in me. I’m an angler, married to the sea.”
These specific moments are brief, scattered in with the other elements that make Saint Cloud so compelling and thoughtful, but these specific moments are what Crutchfield uses to really lure the listener into the world that both she has created, as well as a world that really exists outside there record; a very real place that paints the very real backdrop for the record.
If the South serves as the location a bulk of the record either very clearly unfolds in, or could possibly unfold around, Saint Cloud, at its core is a record about love, in a sense—both an attempt to love someone else (the album has moments of what Pitchfork writer Quinn Moreland calls ‘unsentimental’ love songs, as well as a reflections on the more difficult task of loving one’s self through a time of personal growth and maturation.
And at times, both of these thematic elements converge within the same song, or at least are used ambiguously enough where it comes tough to tell what, or who, the song is actually detailing; either way, this technique of writing and storytelling works to create something larger and more impactful—traits that reveal themselves the longer you sit with Saint Cloud and begin unpacking, as best you can, Crutchfield’s lyrics.
Sometimes it’s easy to differentiate—“Can’t Do Much” is the most obvious ‘unsentimental’ love song on the record, as Crutchfield bellows against a bombastic, western-tinged stomp-a-long, “When you’re missing me, oh, what do you see? Something wild that you think you’ll never be? Somethings are that you can tend to and leave? Something versatile to fill all your needs—maybe? I give it to you all on a dime…I love you till the day I die; I guess it don’t matter why.”
Then, later, “I love you that much anyhow—can’t do much about it now.”
As the album progresses, the line between the love of another and Crutchfield’s own search to be at peace with herself becomes harder to distinguish—“If I could love you unconditionally, I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky,” she sings on “Fire.” “For some of us, it ain’t enough.” Or on the infectious, howling “Lilacs,” which was added to the album after its original completion: “I won’t end up anywhere good without you.”
Saint Cloud’s first half concludes with its most explosive song—“Hell,” a song Crutchfield calls her “Dolly Parton” inspired moment of self-reckoning while working through sobriety early on in the process. “I hover above you like a deity, but you don’t worship me; you still the illusion, you did it well—I’ll put you through hell,” she shouts, with a palpable twang behind her voice.
With songs so personal and reflective, it’d be easy to turn Saint Cloud into a musically somber affair, but that is, again, where Crutchfield succeeds as a songwriter. Yes, there are a handful of inward, borderline pensive moments throughout, but as a whole, she really goes for it—pushing the musicianship of her band for the record (members of the beloved lo-fi, alt.country outfit Bonny Doon) to enormous, raucous heights; a technique that makes these songs, at first listen, arrive as sounding very catchy, and upbeat. It’s only when you begin to work past that kind of ‘pop music’ arranging that you really get to the heart of this material.
Saint Cloud concludes with its two most directly melancholic songs—the aforementioned, slow burning “Ruby Falls,” which is also among the album’s strongest, and most devastating, as Crutchfield’s voice coasts delicately across the top of the Rhodes piano: “I tell this story every time—real love don’t follow a straight line. It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine”; and the sparsely arranged, semi-titular track, which, in an album full of juxtapositions, is musically contrasted against Crutchfield’s vocal strength. The song itself, always designed to be the closing piece (as “Oxbow” was always intended to be the opening), is a more poetically structured reflection on both Crutchfield’s time living in New York in the early 2010s, as well as a look back at her roots in the south: “St. Cloud” is named after the town her father grew up in, in Florida.
“St. Cloud,” as gorgeous and somber as it is, brings the album to a very, very quiet and reserved conclusion, with her last lyrics haunting long after the song’s piano melody ends: “When I go, look back at me, embers aglow…when I go.”
Saint Cloud is one of those rare things. It’s an important record for Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee project—shifting her sound in a totally different direction (for the time being) and really drawing attention to her as a performer and songwriter. It’s an album that is so good and so intelligently put together that it is a very personal collection of songs, reflecting on a tumultuous time in Crutchfield’s private life that she has opted to be very forthcoming about, but it’s also an album that, even with just how confessional and personal it might be, it is surprisingly accessible and full of themes and ideas that are widely understood, and can be adapted to soundtrack your own story.
Gorgeous and thoughtful, with no easy or ‘right’ answers in the end, Saint Cloud is not so much a record that turns into a mirror we can hold up to ourselves, but it is a window that we can look through in order to try and find a different (not better, just different) version of ourselves.
1- Way too long of an aside to cram into the opening paragraph here, and I did go over this in a footnote in the Norman Fucking Rockwell review from last year, but when I say ‘reached out to an old friend,’ what I mean is that I sent a very apologetic and sprawling message to someone that I was once very good friends with, then made an ill-fated attempt at a romantic relationship with that, for the few weeks it lasted before imploding, was incredibly tumultuous. The mistakes I made with her both as a friend and a partner are something that I had spent a long time ruminating on, and blamed myself for what went wrong, and felt very remorseful for more or less ruining a perfectly good friendship and not being mature enough at 21 or 22 to not try harder to remain friends and stay in each other’s lives.
2- I know that I have mentioned Hanif’s Instagram in other reviews, but if you aren’t following him on both Twitter or Instagram, please do so immediately because he is, outside of being an extraordinarily talented writer and poet, an amazing ‘national treasure’ level presence on social media.