Review Summary: Look back at me, embers aglow
I'm in a war with myself
It's got nothing to do with you
It’s initially tempting to write off St. Cloud
as an idle stroll through Americana. On the heels of the much more powerful Out in the Storm
, these songs sound meek – drained, even – as Katie Crutchfield thematically and stylistically retreats homeward to Alabama. The told but likely ignored and forgotten tale behind St. Cloud
is Crutchfield’s battle with alcohol and substance abuse – a world that she delves into during the confessional ‘War’, where she likens addiction to a parasite that runs her body and soul into the ground. She sums it up when she sings, almost defensively, “I'm in a war with myself / It's got nothing to do with you.” Maybe that’s where we need to begin while approaching Waxahatchee’s inward retreat: it’s a healing process – comfort food for a recovering soul – and no, it’s not about you.
On an album imbued with rustic imagery that conjures sun-stained porches and the smell of rain, it’s strange to think that St. Cloud
is an album full of suffering. Crutchfield’s vocals slide across acoustic canvasses like honey dripping off a spoon – she has this sweet, sticky presence that beckons all things green, warm, and beautiful. Behind the veil of rural simplicity, however, Katie is reeling. There’s a pained longing while she draws out “I want it all” during the waning refrain of ‘Oxbow’, a reference to Crutchfield’s desperate desire to start anew. She does the same thing on ‘Can’t Do Much’, stretching a very simple message – “sanity, nullified, I want you” across nearly thirty seconds. There’s nothing accidental about this sort of repetition: Katie is making a point of saying more with less, taking potent emotions and quietly tucking them into a plain white envelope for us to open and interpret. She’s as lucid as we’ve ever heard her, stripping down to her emotional core and daring us to make eye contact.
Once the contextual framework of St. Cloud
is laid out, the pieces of this album begin to fall into place rapidly. ‘Fire’ is an internal dialogue that sees Crutchfield refuse to let herself move on from past mistakes – “Will you let me believe that I broke through?” – while hoping to one day love herself enough to overcome any obstacle: “If I could love you unconditionally, I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky.” It’s a personal pep talk, but the overtones aren’t happy; for each condition there’s a drawback – be it self-doubt or a refusal to forgive oneself – that keeps her planted in a state of perpetual regret. Even the pattering drums and twangy guitar lines aren’t enough to disguise it, and that’s St. Cloud
in a nutshell. On ‘Lilacs’ Katie laments having too much of a good thing, likening her relational dependence to that of the flower: “The lilacs drank the water, and the lilacs die.” Even her silver linings are approached with caution, the tentative footsteps of a soul that thirsts for relief but hurts too deeply to trust a sip from the well. A pertinent self-reflection appears only a few songs later when she laments, “Through vacillating eyes, he wants to have it all…and who am I?” It’s a callback to ‘Oxbow’, where she yearns for a clean slate and now finds herself doubting that she could ever be that
for somebody else. That palpable insecurity comes to a head when she sings, “I'll put you through hell” with an aggression that defies St. Cloud
’s generally amiable atmosphere.
Throughout all of these self-imposed lashings, Katie does manage to cling to one idea as a constant: we’re never done transforming. She embodies that hope best on ‘Arkadelphia’ as she sings atop wispy, breezy guitars, “If we luck out, free as the air – with an unrest craving to spill everywhere / We'll weigh what's good and get real old – keep driving straight searching for a heart of gold.” She’s waxing poetic about taking chances and living vibrantly – steering into life’s messes while acknowledging that there’s no grand meaning to it all. There’s no prize at the finish line, only the journey. It’s a thought that brings her comfort through all these various trials, and that she reemphasizes with a gorgeous verse on ‘Ruby Falls’: “Real love don't follow a straight line / It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine.” All of this is why she’s able to sing on the eponymous closer, almost with an audible smirk, “I go when I go / Look back at me, embers aglow” as the album fades into a blur of warm reverb. Katie Crutchfield invites us to embrace it all – the adventures, the fuck ups, the heartache – because after all, our embers will only glow as brightly as our fires once burned.