At the time of Katie Crutchfield’s last album, 2017’s glorious ‘Out In The Storm’, the songwriter was already talking about stepping back from that record’s adamantine energy. Having recorded as Waxahatchee – named after a creek near her childhood home in Birmingham, Alabama – for the best part of half a decade and with four albums of bittersweet indie rock by that point, the record felt like a sea change.
In hindsight, that desire for peace spoke to more than musical preference; after Crutchfield’s last tour wrapped up the singer quit drinking, something she’d been swearing to do since the age of 17. Inevitably, given that Waxahatchee has always been a relatively autobiographical vehicle for the artist, it was impossible to detach much of the art from its real-life narrative template.
True to her word, ‘Saint Cloud’ foregoes the crash and clatter for something softer and is in thrall to the country and Americana idols she reveres: Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Linda Ronstadt. Much of the focus lies in the possibilities offered by love: ‘Can’t Do Much’ is all country twang and devotion, an invocation to hope that later spreads into the falsetto-led minimalism of ‘Fire’.
Pining for the spark and shudder of Crutchfield’s former works comes easy; P.S. Eliot, her old punk-leaning band with twin sister Allison, were amateur masters of the craft. Sure enough, it’s a pleasure getting swept up with the country-flecked joy of songs like ‘Witches’, a balm centred around myth and friendship, peppered with proper nouns of the lives who’ve run parallel to her own.
But it’s in the quieter moments that honeycomb the record where Crutchfield blossoms. ‘Ruby Falls’ is inarguably one of Waxahatchee’s finest songs to date, and perhaps the most heartbreaking in its self-reflection: “You might mourn all that you wasted,” she sings. “That’s just part of the haul.” Built on little more than acoustic guitar and drums, ‘Arkadelphia’ paints lyrical scenes from a rich, natural palette, beautifully memorialising “an avalanche of the deep red clay earth.”
Across the duration of ‘Saint Cloud’, a number of returns are made. ‘Ruby Falls’ namechecks Waxahatchee Creek, calling back to the physical roots of the project, while the album’s titular closing track – an elegiac voice and piano affair, “burning slow” as its late refrain suggests – is named in honour of her father’s home town in Florida.
Crutchfield is 30 now, and recently described sobriety as another return: to the person she used to be before she started drinking. And though that sea change may have resembled a swirling tempest, it’s a pleasure to hear one of America’s finest modern songwriters working in her brand new element.
Release date: March 27
Record label: Merge