Waxahatchee’s ‘Saint Cloud’ is a map for a lost summer
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Aug. 26, 2020.
“If I burn out like a light bulb,” Katie Crutchfield sings on “Arkadelphia,” “They'll say, ‘She wasn't meant for that flame.’”
Ah, wait, that’s not right. I misheard that last part of the line. “They'll say, ‘She wasn't meant for that life.”
That’s fine. The way you heard a lyric wrong can become just as important as whatever the words were supposed to be. That’s art, ain’t it? Georgia O’Keefe didn’t mean for all those flowers to look so gynecological. If generations still draw feminine power from an iris made out of oil paint, though, will you love it less, once you know why it got onto the canvas in the first place?
Crutchfield’s fifth album as Waxahatchee, “Saint Cloud,” came out in March, early in the coronavirus pandemic. I knew I liked it then, but for whatever reason — probably a willful need to not feel like a plastic fern inside my garage apartment — I soon filed it away behind more danceable new releases, like Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia.”
We had to cut spring off at the stem and stick it in a vase, and then summer came and dried the petals all up, so now we’re sitting in the dying days of a Texas summer waiting so see how fall and winter will express their own distinct stillness and sorrow. The pandemic drags on and takes us with it, into disarray.
But it’s always summer in “Saint Cloud.” Crutchfield’s new songs amble through intimate stories and places that you can tell hold great personal significance for the songwriter. True to her best work, there’s at least one turn of phrase on each track you wouldn’t mind stealing for yourself, maybe as a tattoo in a place only you can typically see.
It’s a sobriety record. Other reviews of the album have noted how clear-eyed the songs feel, how mature they sound in comparison to Waxahatchee’s previous angst-ridden efforts. And it has a sense of place , too — the country and blues rhythms probably sounded like home to the Alabama-bred Crutchfield as she wrote them.
But “Saint Cloud,” fortunately for its listeners, doesn’t suffer if you listen to it in Austin, during a pandemic. Lately, I’ve put it into heavier rotation — like, “three listens in a row“ rotation — and the album’s made me mourn. And at turns, also smile, sigh and stare, and sure, dance.
There’s strength to steal out of tunes like the irresistible “Fire,” even if you’re not cruising through West Memphis like Crutchfield, the city cast in flames by the Mississippi’s reflection of the sun — “If I could love you unconditionally/ I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky/ For some of us, it ain't enough/ It ain't enough.”
Someone popped into your mind when you read that, maybe. Crutchfield has said it’s about herself.
The titular blooms of “Lilacs” drink the water, she sings, and they die, and they drink the water, and they mark the “slow, slow, slow passing of time.” Elsewhere on the song, Crutchfield talks being a broken record and spinning silence into gold. “Lilacs” starts to feel like an anthem for our times, no matter to whom the lyrics’ rightful pronouns belong.
The best recommendation I could give “Saint Cloud” is to run head first into the easy simile — that the album sounds like a lazy, Southern summer night. They’re always lazy, you know, but this year they’re practically dosed with horse tranquilizers. There’s not a hard corner on the whole record — just the strum of gooey strings left out too long in the sun on “The Eye,” maybe a soft little hi-hat on that fantastic “Arkadelphia.” It haunts your ears, reaching out from whatever old country record you last heard on a jukebox somewhere it’s not safe to drive to anymore.
“Arkadelphia” is about “someone I have known for a very long time who struggled badly with addiction,” Crutchfield told Pitchfork. “It starts with this imagery of the South from my youth and conjures this innocence. Then the middle part takes you into the thick of the addiction: it’s truly dire, it’s life or death.”
The songwriter also said in that interview that the full story of the song isn’t really even hers to tell. But whatever version she’s conjured, she meant it as a way to relate to someone else.
What I once misheard on “Arkadelphia” spoke to me about going big and seeing where it takes you, come what may. The true lyric is more morbid by half. That’s what listening to “Saint Cloud” is like, though. You can’t experience exactly what Crutchfield has, but the album takes you wherever you need to go.
And heaven knows it would be nice to go somewhere.