Waxahatchee‘s Katie Crutchfield took the stage just after dark at last year’s Woodsist Festival, barefoot in a flowing black gown. With an acoustic guitar around her neck and her new backing band, Bonny Doon, behind her, she launched into a set of mostly new songs that sounded nothing like 2017’s Out in the Storm. That was a record steeped in Philadelphia’s much-lauded indie-rock scene. Surprisingly, the songs sounded like a much different time and place, something closer to the harmony-heavy country-rock of 1970s Laurel Canyon, with Crutchfield gleefully leaning into every word in an Alabama-drawl. At the end of every song, someone in the crowd would howl in perplexed delight, as if trying to articulate what everyone was thinking: “Did you just hear that?” The set concluded with a cover of Lucinda Williams‘ slow-burning “Fruits of My Labor”, a perfect end to the set, especially when Crutchfield sang, “Come to my world and witness / The way things have changed.”
Over a year before her set at Woodsist, Crutchfield was newly sober and attempting to write her follow-up to Out in the Storm, an album that had propelled Waxahatchee to the largest audiences of her career. For inspiration, she turned to her favorite album of all time: Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Crutchfield is an outspoken Lucinda acolyte, even writing an homage to Car Wheels for its 20th anniversary. “When I discovered Car Wheels, I fully realized how powerful it can be to embrace the contradictions and the unknown because that is the only path to making something that is truly original,” she wrote. “As a songwriter with some parallels with Lucinda, two women from the Deep South, it makes me emotional to think about what she did just in making this album. It’s everything I ever set out to. It’s proof it can be done.”
It’s no coincidence that Crutchfield wrote these words at the same time she was writing Saint Cloud, her excellent and inspiring new album. Crutchfield uses her admiration of Williams as a starting point, but Saint Cloud is an original statement that’s a high point in an already impressive career.
More than anything, Saint Cloud relies on clarity, both in sound and in spirit. Every instrument sounds pristine, abandoning both the distorted haze of Out in the Storm and the lo-fi buzz of earlier records, like 2013’s Cerulean Salt. In the absence of studio effects, Crutchfield’s voice is pushed to the center; it’s more pronounced and emotive than ever, sounding at home with the country twang of songs like “Can’t Do Much” and “Hell”. And in processing her sobriety, Crutchfield’s words are also clear-eyed and honest about her past mistakes and her limitations. “I’m wiser and slow and attuned / And I am down on my knees, I’m a bird in the trees,” she sings on “Fire.” “I can learn to see with a partial view.”
Every song, even the slower numbers, quakes with excited energy. It’s easy to picture Crutchfield siphoned off from the world, surrounded by new bandmates, writing these left-turns while smiling ear-to-ear. On its face, a country record about sobriety and maturity might sound like a dirge, yet it’s anything but that. Even as she catalogs self-destructive tendencies on “War” or considers what life could’ve been on “Arkadelphia”, Crutchfield sounds joyfully unencumbered, thrilled to be exploring every possibility in front of her.
Saint Cloud, like Car Wheels, finds an artist operating at the top of her game, embracing, as Crutchfield put it, “the contradictions and the unknown” to produce a thrilling and inspirational work. As this album makes its way into the corners of the world, into playlists and record collections and conversations with friends, I’m sure it’ll have the same impact on younger listeners that Williams had on Crutchfield. I can’t wait to hear the results.