[Don Giovanni, 2013]
Katie Crutchfield released her first album as Waxahatchee in January of last year. It was titled American Weekend, and it sounded like the sort of album I would have mail ordered from Plan-It-X Records back in high school: DIY folk rock, played with heart on sleeve, available through the mail in exchange for money order or carefully concealed cash. As it happens, Waxahatchee’s recorded debut was a split EP with Plan-It-X head honcho Chris Clavin, but only the digital version is available. They didn’t offer that option back in high school.
American Weekend was DIY to the core. Recorded in Crutchfield’s bedroom, the eleven tracks feature nothing but her voice and acoustic guitar. The approach gave a bracing bluntness to Crutchfield’s confessional lyrics, but that’s a tough trick to pull twice. Once you’ve been raved on NPR, lo-fi starts to seem less intimate and more cloying. On Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield beefs up the sound, but hangs onto that intimacy. The result is a stronger album that better highlights the songwriting gifts that were already front and center on her debut.
Cerulean Salt was recorded in a bedroom, too, but the jump in fidelity is huge. There’s no more crackle and hiss, and the songs range from quiet folk to full band rockers. Crutchfield brought in members from pop-punk band Swearin’ to flesh out her songs this time around, including her twin sister and former P.S. Eliot bandmate Alison. The presence of electric guitar, drums, bass, and occasional harmonizing vocals makes Cerulean Salt a more dynamic listen than American Weekend, and it gives Crutchfield additional tools to underscore her themes. The impatient drums on “Swan Dive” add an unresolved restlessness, and the Breeders-style grunge-pop on tour diary “Coast to Coast” sounds custom made for interstate travel. Crutchfield no longer needs to rely solely on her voice and lyrics to carry all of the weight.
That’s not to say that the lyrics aren’t still the main selling point here. Crutchfield is a phenomenal songwriter, and this set of songs is nearly flawless. The Waxahatchee moniker comes from the name of a creek near her parents’ remote Alabama home, and much has been made of the influence of the rural South on her work. That’s there if you look hard enough, but her songs are more universal than regional. She primarily sings about damaged or dying relationships (often romantic, sometimes not). The people that inhabit her songs share a similar malaise, rooted in the shiftlessness of adults who haven’t embraced the transition from youth to maturity very gracefully. Despite their shared afflictions, these people can’t seem to look past their own navels and make any kind of mutually beneficial connection. The couple in “Lively” can’t help but make it worse for each other: “You tell a lazy lie / And I tel them you’re a liar.” They know where to find all the sore spots, and they needle away compulsively. Crutchfield sings, “I had a dream last night / We had hit separate bottoms / You yelled right in my face / And I poisoned myself numb,” before going on to admit that she’s just “longing for my youth.”
“Swan Dive” is possibly even more brutal in its depiction of a relationship kept alive by unearned optimism. He dreams about “a swan dive to the hot asphalt,” she dreams of “loveless marriage and regret,” but they convince themselves in their waking moments that they are each others’ escape route: “Won’t you sleep with me / Every night for a week / Won’t you just let me pretend / This is the love I need.” Elsewhere, “Brother Bryan” absolutely nails the brutal honesty that starts flowing between friends in the early morning hours, when the beer is gone and the conversation moves between “bearings undone” and “a story so heavy, we tell it so rarely.” And the most emblematic moment of all comes from “Blue, Pt. II,” where Crutchfield sings, “It may look like every hour is dictated by the chance of rain / We won’t melt or die, we won’t even feel an ounce of pain.” These are characters weighted down by disappointment with their current position in life. They dread getting caught in a holding pattern, but they can’t do anything to fight against the inertia. The rain doesn’t hurt, but the expectation of it is unbearable.
This might all sound too grim and insular by half, but Crutchfield’s greatest strength as a songwriter is her ability to take a step back and see the patterns and meaning behind all this self-destructive behavior. On album highlight “Dixie Cups and Jars,” she finds herself unsettled by a friend’s wedding. The bride’s father drinks away the “bitter taste,” while makeup sits on his daughters face “like tar.” Crutchfield has empathy for the less-than-glowing bride, but she knows she isn’t doomed to the same fate: “Escape yells both our names out loud / We run like hell, I’ll write a tragic epilogue / And you’ll act it out.” She just sits quietly with her Mason jar full of champagne, drinking it down and synthesizing her life experiences into cutting, affecting songs that will resonate with anyone who’s ever been rudderless and twentysomething.