In March, Waxahatchee’s fifth album arrived accompanied by a neat narrative hook. Saint Cloud was the first record Katie Crutchfield had made since getting sober – a change that occasioned a move away from rollicking, emotionally volatile indie and toward a calmer Americana-informed sound. But, as Crutchfield spent most of the ensuing promo pointing out, this hardly qualified as a dramatic lifestyle overhaul – there was no addiction to battle, no ravaged organs to restore, no eye-watering debauchery to repent. Instead, she explained that her boozing had led to too many lie-ins. She simply wanted to get back to the “really productive person” she had formerly been.
As album origin stories go, it’s pretty gentle. Luckily, Saint Cloud requires absolutely no confected intrigue to reel the listener in. With lead single Fire, released in January, it was clear that the already much-admired musician had significantly levelled up. Sparse and ethereal country-tinged rock, elliptical lyrics suggestive of hard-won wisdom and a beguiling melody that forced Crutchfield to strain at the edges of her vocal register coalesced into a sound that was beautiful, timeless and deeply comforting. Crutchfield cited alt-country pioneer Lucinda Williams as a crucial influence on Saint Cloud, but the spectre of a more conventional giant is equally hard to ignore. These songs truly deserve the descriptor Dylanesque, not just for their stylistic nods – Lilacs’ laboured pronunciation and chiming guitar figures, Witches with its assonance and “babe”s – but for their quality.
The old argument about authenticity in music – the rockiest idea that sounds made by actual instruments are more honest, real or true – seems increasingly ridiculous: these days digital bleeps are a far better reflection of our external reality than the twang of an acoustic guitar. Yet there is something profoundly restorative about Saint Cloud’s back-to-basics, largely analogue approach; its reliance on subtle, wending melodies and guitar licks that resound with dog-eared familiarity. How this simple, seemingly organic sound translates into real-life succour – something with the ability to replenish internal reserves of hope, serenity and energy – will always be a little mysterious, but Crutchfield’s lyrics undoubtedly aid the cause.
Saint Cloud deals in specifics. The repeated references to real places (her father’s Florida hometown; a street in Crutchfield’s native Birmingham, Alabama; a Barcelona hotel) root the record in a storied past, as do the relationships explored. Witches name-checks her best friends and her sister, The Eye is about her musician partner Kevin Morby, Ruby Falls references a friend who died of a drug overdose. Yet the real appeal and power of Saint Cloud – particularly in 2020 – lies in the theme that connects and transcends all these topics: an acceptance of the inevitable. “You might mourn all that you wasted / That’s just part of the haul,” Crutchfield sings on Ruby Falls; “I can learn to see with a partial view,” she explains on Fire – both over strikingly unforced tunes.
It’s an attitude that feels almost spookily prescient considering Saint Cloud was recorded in 2019: we’ve all had to submit to the workings of fate and make peace with the limitations of our influence. And although Saint Cloud provides no tritely optimistic spin on this state of affairs, it still radiates a soothing, cathartic and bittersweet joy. Forces beyond our control can make our lives harder, but they can also make them immeasurably better – in fact, those forces are what life is. As Crutchfield puts it on The Eye, yet another effortlessly lush, nourishing, gorgeous number: “Where love will land, nobody knows, nobody knows, nobody knows.”