Some albums come with an inescapable narrative that dominates its release. Often, the dissolution of a relationship provides that narrative with the fearless and raw self-analysis becoming the principal line taken by the music press. Sometimes that can detract from the music. Albums such as Beck’s Sea Change and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago will be forever dominated by the circumstances in which they were recorded, and it can be difficult to separate the two. Although beautiful and great albums in their own right, the music and the painful separation they document remain tightly joined. Nevertheless, some albums may come complete with the familiar account of a painful split but one that doesn’t cast such an all-encompassing shadow over the music. Waxahatchee’s fourth album is exactly that kind of album.
Waxahatchee’s (aka Katie Crutchfield) previous album Ivy Trip saw her take the first tentative steps towards using her music as therapy in an attempt to understand why a long-standing relationship went bad. While an admirable attempt at introspection, she admits that she couldn’t find the answers she was looking for. It was as if she was unwilling or unable to answer the questions she needed to ask herself. However, on Out in the Storm Crutchfield takes the plunge and asks herself the hard questions. The ones that no one wants to address when reflecting on a noxious relationship, such as whether she was to blame, what she was oblivious to and when and how she deceived herself. The resultant album is an unflinching account of a break up all told with the benefit of hindsight. It’s her attempt to completely dismantle the person she was, the person she has become and disassemble her relationship and reflect on where it went wrong. Its aim is clear: to finally find some closure.
Rather than wallow in her pain, Waxahatchee comes out swinging on opener “Never Been Wrong”. It’s a driving, spikey alt-rock song that hits harder than anything on Ivy Tripp. From the outset, it is clear that this is a much more urgent and guitar based album having been recorded live with her whole band. The ’90s alt-rock touchstones are present in there with tips of the hat to Throwing Muses and the Breeders, but this still feels completely like her sound. The song also serves as a statement of intent with the line “Everyone will hear me complain / Everyone will pity my pain” stating upfront how difficult it is to leave oneself so bare on record. “8 Ball” perfectly captures the antithetical confusion of a break-up. On the one hand, she says she wants to let it all go no matter who witnesses it, “I’ll drink too much / I’ll cause a big scene” while at the same time she sighs “I’ll be nobody”.
The immediate “Silver” bounces along with thicker, textured guitars but imbued with a bubblegum pop sense of melody. It’s clear that this is the moment when everything started to go wrong as she intones, “the kiss on my lips starts to feel unfamiliar”. The more post-punk “Recite Remorse” is a shimmering, organ-led piece loaded with a low, jagged bassline. The song sees her wrestling with the possibility of ending the relationship, made clear on lines such as “I was losing my mind / I was halfway out the door.” “Sparks Fly” is a mid-tempo number with a driving acoustic melody which showcases the strength of her vocals. It’s both poignant, wistful and emotional but with an incessant, sing-along chorus.
The toll the relationship has taken on Crutchfield is apparent on “Brass Beam” where the line “When I think about it / I wanna punch the wall” is actually quite shocking in the context of the album. Shocking in that this understandable burst of rage feels out of character, a blip and one that anyone can empathize with. This is one of the strengths of the album. Not only are her feelings instantly relatable they feel personal and affecting as if it was being described by a friend or family member. Despite the heavier subject matter, the songs are more rounded and more memorable than on Ivy Trip. It’s as if she has perfected the template she has been working hard to achieve with each new release. Musically, the band adds variety within the guitar-based sound with elements of alt-rock, post-punk, and new wave, however, there is much less of the experimentation found on Ivy Tripp. That said, “Hear You” really benefits from the thick synth chords that augment the alt-rock song structure.
“A Little More” is a bright, ringing acoustic song. While the music is reminiscent of Cerulean Salt, the lyrics shows how much she has grown. It’s the effect the end of a mature, grown up relationship can have with emotive, affecting lyrics such as “My feelings taper off / I die a little more / I live a little more.” That suggests that she is well aware that this pain and hurt will eventually be the making of her. “No Question” is one of the rockiest things she’s ever put on record. A freewheeling, slacker anthem with more than a hint of Dinosaur Jr. Closer “Fade” draws a line under the whole relationship and sees her granted the closure she so clearly needs. It’s not an emphatic anthem of female empowerment but a quiet decision to just vanish from their life completely with the line “I kissed you goodbye/and hid for the rest of your life”.
Out in the Storm is a dignified account of the dissolution of a relationship and the effect it has on every facet of one’s life. It’s never overwrought. Never hopeless. Never bitter. Instead, this is an unflinching, cathartic album that is concerned with looking back to help her move forward with a clear understanding that it will be the making of her. It’s also an album where the music is easily removed from the subject matter and can simply be enjoyed for what it is — a superb set of beautifully crafted and catchy rock songs.