Waxahatchee’s latest album is a brilliant self-study that occupies a haunting liminal space.
In the three weeks I spent with Ivy Tripp, winter started inching toward spring. The changing of the seasons parallels the album nicely, as it is a transitional work. In it, singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield asks questions, makes indecisive statements, and tries to figure out the relation of her self-truths to the facts of those around her. Her never-ending checks and balances between "what do you want?" and "what do I want?" are a precise incarnation of a quarter-life crisis being messily (and boldly) lived through.
Ivy Tripp’s musicality shifts and morphs across its 13 tracks, developing Cerulean Salt’s genre-hopping while occasionally shooting respectful nods to '70s influences. Crutchfield seems most concerned with finding every way possible to lighten her heavy heart's load rather than drive through the lens of any one aesthetic. It’s a welcome place for an artist’s third album to occupy and is braver than settling into the critically-acclaimed comfort zone established on Cerulean Salt. The strongest moments of Ivy Tripp are when she sticks closer to rougher edges than warm middles -- "Air" remains the album's leading track, pairing her command of language with one of the smartest arrangements of her catalog. Compared to the honed three-speed Cerulean Salt, the rhythmic scattershot of Ivy Tripp makes for a more exciting casual listen, but it does weaken the album’s aural cohesiveness. It’s a fair trade-off.
In her interview with The Le Sigh this past February, Crutchfield explained that "[Ivy Tripp] is my first record as this person that I am now. I wrote all those records when I was a little younger or just starting to figure stuff out. I feel like this is a new thing." When held against the bright light of Cerulean Salt, Ivy Tripp indeed proves to be more a diamond than a magnifying glass. Instead of concentrating her poetic phrasing on a particular relationship or event, as she did with her debut American Weekend, Crutchfield takes the opportunity to find the exact right phrasing within a wider swath of emotional colors. There is an overall shape of things -- throughout the album, she often frames her experience through others’ experiences of her -- but there’s also a complexity to these songs that thrives in uncomfortable shades. When dissected for style, her lyrics make wonderful use of change within repeated phrases and patterns that build the narrative through an evolving echo. Often, the first and second iterations of a verse or chorus will keep the same frame but change the picture entirely.
The minimal and fuzzy instrumentation of "Breathless" is the perfect introduction, immediately tuning the listener’s attention to Crutchfield’s words. "We could be good for days" is an ominous promise, coyly hinting at the short shelf life of a relationship’s stability ("I could just close my eyes" is not a long-term solution). "You see me how / I wish I was / I’m not trying to be seen" and "You indulge me / I indulge you / I’m not trying to have it all" are admissions of having one foot out the door -- but when we’re lonely, being with someone we shouldn’t be with is better than being with nobody at all. It might not be a stretch to assume there’s a love addiction at play.
From there, Ivy Tripp covers familiar genre territory -- "Under a Rock", "Poison" and "La Loose" are sonic sisters to Speedy Ortiz and a mellower Radiator Hospital. "La Loose" finds its edge as Casio drums and soft backing vocals lead us to hard-panned hi hats and a warbling guitar line. Tracing the storyline, Crutchfield enters deeper into relationships, but is also aware that she isn’t fully herself or a healthy partner: "And you can lean on me for now / I am frozen in time / And when the sun burns I’ll turn red / But I will feel so close to dead / And I will visualize a tragedy / And blame you for it." Here, we are reminded of the fight between winter and the warmer weather that precedes every spring. Things cannot last, as "Stale By Noon" confirms. The struggle of who she is versus who she was, and where she would rather be, eventually comes knocking: "Simple things will light me up / I can imitate some kind of love / Or I could see it for what it is / And stop kidding myself."
"Air" brings the second half of the record to staggering life. It is one of Crutchfield’s finest moments and serves as a brilliant crest to the wave that builds throughout Ivy Tripp. Every question, every infuriating moment of feeling both lost in space and drowning in another person, leads to this song. It is a harrowing presentation of an emotionally double-edged sword -- weighing self-preservation against passively letting somebody love you because that, too, seems in your best interests. Here, most clearly, we begin to see Crutchfield as not just guilty (a shade she has already worn well on Cerulean Salt) but understanding of her own complicity. The first chorus of "And you are patiently giving me / Every answer as I roamed free" reaches a devastating apex with "And you are patiently giving me / Everything that I will never need."
The rest of the album plays confidently. "Less Than" has a devolving bridge that warps the track into a messy mantra of "You’re less than me / I am nothing." "Summer of Love" is Ivy Tripp’s most haunting track, implying a breakup and boiling down the relationship to the relics it left behind ("The summer of love is a photo of us"). Here, Crutchfield again shows her gift for specific yet universal phrasing -- regardless of how long ago it was, you could get up from your screen right now and likely find the one or two things you kept when you let the other person go. The chorus is also a sobering reminder that everything important to us can one day become simply ornamental. Tucked away in the first verse, Crutchfield confesses that for the first time in a while she is comforted by what she sees when she looks at herself. Rather than let her loneliness best her, she makes a hard and honest appraisal of what she’s escaped. "Half Moon" provides the album’s thesis: "Our love tastes like sugar but it pulls all the life out of me." "Bonfire" closes the album with a fair postmortem, with Crutchfield facing down her ex and remaining invested in herself.
If 2014 was the year of the heartbroken (1989 being the crown jewel), Ivy Tripp offers survivor anthems and ballads of a different sort. Crutchfield writes for the kids whose struggles with themselves often result in letting others down, having to let others go. These are the heartbreakers, but they are just as fractured as the people who claim to be their victims. Rarely have they been so sympathetically represented.