Saint Cloud is a journey. It’s a drive that we as listeners go on, alongside Katie Crutchfield, the songwriter behind Waxahatchee. She made a decision, in 2018, to embrace sobriety, and this album tells the story of that decision. It makes for powerful listening. Saint Cloud is an LP that, instrumentally, is familiar. It rarely strays from the country rulebook – but this is key to the album’s emotive power. By using this well-worn stable of sounds, Crutchfield can then set these songs ablaze lyrically, to heart-rending effect.
On first listen, the album sounds pleasant enough, listenable country-folk with a memorable vocal delivery. But with every further listen, the at-turns both desperate and uplifting songwriting is laid bare. Crutchfield examines every facet of addiction, its effect on the addict, and those around them. ‘Hell’ details the struggles of resisting old temptations, and ‘War’ is written for her best friend, explaining that this affliction is one Crutchfield must bear alone. Opener ‘Oxbow’ is, however, surprisingly upbeat. Written immediately after her decision to stop drinking, it’s undeniably beguiling, hanging around in the head for days after. But the melodies are only second fiddle to the at-once subtle and incisive lyrics on show.
A particular highlight is mid-album cut ‘The Eye’, ostensibly about the process of songwriting, and loving another artist. Crutchfield has been in a relationship with Kevin Morby since 2017, and this track was written for and about him, and sharing your art with a loved one. She describes her songwriting (“chase all the rain, put it down, call it paint”), and their shared need to write about their experiences (“powerless against the calling of the eye”). Indeed, Saint Cloud is preoccupied with processes, journeys – it moves through its subject matter. ‘Lilacs’ finds Katie at the piano, examining the vases of flowers atop it. The lilacs of the title inevitably die, but within that inevitability Crutchfield finds an innate comfort – she may struggle, in recovery, but everything is a process, and everything has its place.
Saint Cloud cuts deepest in moments of pure narrative. The tracks ‘Arkadelphia’ and ‘Ruby Falls’ are twin flashes of grief, both telling the stories of friends of Crutchfield, and their struggles with addiction. ‘Arkadelphia’ is a window into the burden of just staying the course, Crutchfield speaking to the trauma at the heart of recovery: “if we make pleasant conversation, I hope you can't see what's burning in me”. If ‘Arkadelphia’ is concerned with the day to day reality of healing, ‘Ruby Falls’ is preoccupied with telling the story of a friend lost to an overdose, in painful detail. The track ends with a concise summary of how it feels to watch on as a friend spirals – “I’m an angler married to the sea”.
Saint Cloud is an outstandingly accomplished depiction of the web addiction weaves throughout a life. Katie Crutchfield’s is a vital voice, and she has on her hands a collection of songs that are at times both heart-breaking and life-affirming. Absolutely essential.