Waxahatchee wasn’t a new act when the album Ivy Tripp was released, in 2015. Katie Crutchfield had been slinging tunes under that name for a few years and had a couple prior full-lengths. But Ivy Tripp felt major and new, even as it called back to the thick alternative rock of the mid–nineteen-nineties, when buzzy guitars were applied to lithe pop hooks. On her next album, Out in the Storm, Crutchfield took the sound and expanded it, filling in the expanded footprint with sonic complexities. Tracks felt like they could go just about anywhere, long tethers keeping them bound to Crutchfield’s fierce spirit.
Having mastered and compellingly updated a certain sound of a couple decades past, Waxahatchee takes a turn on the new album Saint Cloud, roaring down the gravel road of cunning Americana rock, of the sort that was once wincingly dubbed y’allternative. There’s a little Wilco, a little Jayhawks, and whole lotta vintage Lucinda Williams to the songs on Saint Cloud, but with a tight, crisp wrapping of Crutchfield’s finely considered sensibility. “Can’t Do Much” has easygoing, back-porch-rocker charm, and “Fire” is intricate and spare, Crutchfield’s voice twanging like a taut wire. “Oxbow” achingly deliberate, with Cat Power’s trick of employing a jabbing cadence on the vocals.
Crutchfield has been upfront about this album representing a personal turning point, as it’s the first she’s made after deciding she needed to give up drinking. The act of self-redefinition shades the whole album, and sometimes comes out overtly, always packing a wallop. On “Arkadelphia,” Crutchfield sings, “If I burn out like a light bulb/ They’ll say ‘She wasn’t meant for that life’/ They’ll put it all in a capsule and save it for a dark night” and the candor is almost jarring. I don’t think Crutchfield has been particularly reticent previously (Out of the Storm is an emotional powerhouse), but Saint Cloud draws the honesty from a rawer place and in doing so starts to find a kind of grace in stiff-shouldered expression. And through that grace is a potential passageway out of the darkness. The practically perfect “Lilacs” lays it out with jagged truth: “I run it like the crop of kismet/ I run it like a dilettante/ I run it like I’m happy, baby/ Like I got everything I want.” Crutchfield is getting there, and she’s making a marvelous soundtrack of her memoir of learning to be.