Nothing Left to Fear: A Review of Waxahatchee’s St. Cloud
Hardly anything about 2020 has been dreamy. Daily, the present grows larger and the edges of the past and future seem farther away. It takes both a strong and flexible album to wrangle us out of the grip of the present and into another time-space, like St. Cloud, Waxahatchee’s 2020 album (Merge Records).
Katie Crutchfield’s new work is a dream. It’s a balm of soft beats, simple chords, and repetitive croons. The folk/Americana tunes feel impossibly easy, but that is part of the juxtaposition—Crutchfield’s casual voice weighed against the heaviness of the content, which deals with loss, addiction, and death.
The opening song “Oxbow” encapsulates the spirit of the album, breaking through immediately with a snare that drags just a hair after the beat and layered harmonies that dance more complicated rhythms on top of the basic percussion. Crutchfield’s voice rings through on the chorus with the admission, “I want it all / I want it all / I want it all.” The notes fall with the realization that having it all is impossible, until they are sprung back up again for the same line, anyway, “I want it all.” Perhaps that is the theme of this album, wanting so (too) much—in love and in life and in death.
“Oxbow” is both fresh and nostalgic, like the album’s other songs. Something about their wistfulness is unsettling in 2020, as if we know they must be about some other place and some other time. “Can’t Do Much” transports the listener back to a place where the long, drawn-out notes of the chorus might have burst through static on the radio in 1990 or 2000. The gliding guitars play a call and response type rhythm in this one, where the chorus is almost confession, “I want you / all the time / sanity / nullified.” Each refrain of the song works toward completing the thought, as if Crutchfield is caught in a cycle of beginning, almost backing down, and then finally finishing. She only arrives at the confession, “I love you til the day I die” after singing, “I love you til the day I— / I love you til the day I— / I love you til the day I—” as if working up the courage to admit the truth.
If “Can’t Do Much” is a confession, “Fire” is an introspective ultimatum. Only through a buildup that begins with “that’s what I wanted” and ends with “for some of us / it ain’t enough” do we catch, a sense of anger and disappointment in what has been left unfulfilled. Again, like in “Oxbow”, we see the result of wanting too much or expecting too much out of someone or something. In the next song, “Lilacs” this frustration is transformed into a dreamy confidence. We enter into the dream through a wondering: “I sit at my piano, wander the wild whereby / And the lilacs drank the water / and the lilacs die.” By the time the chorus erupts, we understand that the speaker is not dying but is speaking themself back to life: “I'll fill myself back up like I used to do.”
That these songs float somewhere between a possible dream state and possible past is their strength. They rely both on nostalgia and wishful thinking to imagine a love and a life that is both self-fulfilled and increased through the right company. “The Eye” is another easy listen that sounds like it might be best sung alone in a room with only a guitar or at a small house party. It is not unfinished but rather has an imperfect and honest sound that is difficult to replicate in more hyper-polished records. “Hell” follows suit as another that is self-aware in its nostalgia. A description of a guy “burning fast and so, so bright” is recognized as “a classic plight.” The song leans into this knowing, as the 6 chords progress and envelop the listener in the familiar feeling of folk.
“Witches” picks up the pace again, bringing in a cast of characters whose lives we only glimpse through a couplet of lines each. Marlee, Lindsey, Alison. They, like the gold chain, sung about in these lyrics, are strung along in verses that melt right into the choruses. Instead of big build-ups or lengthy refrains, this song plows right through, offering a cohesive tale of a myth—one that might have been told already in “Can’t Do Much,” “Lilacs” or some other song. “War” has a similar driven, percussive feeling, accompanied by opening whimsical notes like those offered in “Fire.” This song, like many others, showcases Crutchfield’s voice: high notes that gently sail, a vibrato that rings only slightly at the end of phrases, and lower notes that ground the music in moments of personal clarity, like, “I’m in a war with myself / It’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Arkadelphia” also showcases the unique timbre of Crutchfield’s voice, along with the genius simplicity of the backing band, which includes, in this one, an electric guitar that adds extra layers of ringing sound. This song, like the beginning ones, feels confessional—a soft speculation about endings that envelops the last half of the album. We enter into wonderings about the future by way of the past, as ordinary images of trailer parks and tomatoes fill the narrative. In 2020, each of us can sympathize with the speaker who in the chorus wonders about burning out “like a light bulb” and tells us, “If you get real close to the ending / I hope you know I did what I could / We try to give it all meaning / Glorify the grain of the wood / Tell ourselves what's beautiful and good.”
The next song, “Ruby Falls” seems to take those lyrics to heart, again, wondering openly about death and meaning in life. This song is not tragic but is unflinching in its examination of how things might turn out. After singing “You might mourn all that you wasted / That's just part of the haul / Tangling up all your good fortune / Bearing the heart of the fall / You won't break it after all” a large pause in the song makes you wonder if they did, indeed, break their good fortune, or this is the end.
But, after an impossibly long wait, Crutchfield enters again to continue the song. This is representative of the way Crutchfield takes us, in this album, to the edge, but never over it. After the pause, the speaker questions what the future might look like. Will the speaker die first? If they do, they vow to “sing a song at your funeral / Laid in the Mississippi gulf / Or back home at Waxahatchee creek.” This imagining of the future, even with death, is not painted as tragedy, but as a natural order of things, just the way things go in an ordinary life, where mourning and celebration co-exist.
The last song of the record, “St. Cloud” sounds like a rainy day. The soft pads of a piano are overlaid by the strong bellow of Crutchfield’s voice that comes across halfway like a cry. Her Southern drawl is stronger in this one, as the notes, themselves drag out. These are notes one might make if you, as the lyrics say, were on a rooftop “yell[ing] what you know.” The only reprieve from this emotionally-demanding sound are the soft “do-do-do”s, layered with the tinkering piano, that separate each verse. Here, in the final song of the album, we encounter a culmination of questions about the end, about “when I go / when I go / when I go.” All of the speculations from the previous songs about death are summed up as, “If the dead just go on living / Well there’s nothing left to fear.” We are left with the lyrics about leaving, and it’s hard to say goodbye.
Katie Crutchfield’s St. Cloud project is not easily forgotten. Long after the album plays through, the haunting melodies float through your mind, a siren-like voice calling to you from somewhere in the distant past. This is a truly remarkable feat. In the midst of 2020’s chaos and confusion, when breaking news stories vie for our attention, her voice and musicality stand as something unique, something to also remember about this year.
I would not call St. Cloud a happy album, but I also would not call it an album of despair. Though the songs reveal anger, grief, frustration, and, at times hopelessness, they never linger too long on the heaviest parts. Instead, like Crutchfield’s voice, they manage to lift themselves up, finding refuge somewhere—whether that place is the past that let you go, or a present realization, or a future yet to come. After all of its examinations of tragedy, losing a sense of self, and regaining balance, there is an assurance that, as “St. Cloud” says, “there’s nothing left to fear.”