Album Review: Waxahatchee, ‘Tigers Blood’

    Katie Crutchfield calls ‘Right Back to It’, perhaps the best single released this year so far, the first real love song she’s ever written. “The fundamental parts of my whole songwriting style are built on being inspired by sadness, so it’s more about evoking heartache and heartbreak,” she said in a recent interview, adding, “But it’s tricky to write songs about being happy.” Crutchfield is not the only beloved indie singer-songwriter with a record out on Friday that takes up the challenge of communicating a version of love that’s steady, freeing, and contented; with her latest collection Bright Future, Adrianne Lenker also shows she’s come a long way since the early Big Thief song that compared real love to a heart attack. Like Lenker, Crutchfield continues to find compelling ways to write about relationships – including those she keeps with herself and her work – falling in love with the patience rather than the torture they require. “It plays on my mind/ How the time passing/ Covers you like a friend,” she sings on the first song of her new album Tigers Blood, a timeless, staggering achievement that’s in many ways about the unfolding of that friendship.

    2020’s Saint Cloud was a stunning balm of a record, one that saw Krutchfield embracing the Americana aesthetic that carries onto the new record; she tried experimenting with more pop-leaning production for “a good six hours,” she estimates, but it didn’t stick. Reuniting with producer Brad Cook to record the album at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, this time with help from Cook’s brother Phil, Spencer Tweedy, and Wednesday guitarist MJ Lenderman (who plays on every song and provides harmonies on many of them), Tigers Blood leans into and refines its predecessor’s sonic palette in ways that make space for the growth in Crutchfield’s lyrics. If Saint Cloud aspired toward and invited the clarity that comes with getting sober, Tigers Blood settles into it without losing grasp on the melodic and lyrical acuity that makes Crutchfield’s music so impactful. She’s too self-aware to make a boring record – the way she stretches out the word on ‘Bored’, a fiery tune that imagines how an older Waxahatchee song might sound with her presently more clear-eyed approach, it sounds like the burning indictment of a friendship that’s run its course – and too conflicted to simply bask in Saint Cloud’s warm afterglow.

    “I get caught up in my thoughts/ For lack of a better cause/ My life’s been mapped out to a T/ But I’m always a little lost,” she sings on ‘Lone Star Lake’. It’s not only the way she writes about it, though, that’s changed, but the feeling she decides should ultimately hover over each song, no matter how deeply you read into it. The circles Lenderman’s electric guitar and Phil Cook’s banjo draw around ‘Lone Star Lake’ and ‘Right Back to It’ contribute a lot to the songs’ light, airy romanticism, but there’s a shift in Crutchfield’s language, too. On ‘Hurricane’, her 2022 single with Jess Williamson as Plains, Crutchfield used nature as a metaphor to describe the same destructive behaviour she acknowledges on ‘Right Back to It’, where she sings, “I let my mind run wild/ I don’t know why I do it,” but coming back around is less of a promise than a comforting certainty. ‘Lone Star Lake’ builds a stunner out of the simple proposition of heading out to the titular lake in Kansas, replacing old vices with “the drunkenness of free reign,” while ‘Evil Spawn’ is in direct conversation with a past lifestyle she now recognizes as toxic, admitting, “What you thought was enough now seems insane.”

    Serenity is always in the air, but it’s not easy to get a grasp on, even in the state of stability that Tigers Blood finds Crutchfield in. For every breezy melody and universal truth she uses as a guiding torch – “If you’re not living then you’re dying” – there are literary passages that veer off course and into a tangle of contradictions that, impressively, her voice navigates with fierce precision. These often relate to her role as an artist and storyteller who sees doors open with each breakthrough; “I make a living crying, it ain’t fair/ Not budging,” she admits on the opener, knowing, as she sings on ‘Crowbar’, that the alternative is taking it “pretty far on a prayer that’s pale and synthetic.” ‘Crimes of the Heart’ is about how tempting it is to tear yourself apart for the sake of art: “You’re an agent of truth, twisted up at the tail end/ You play the villain like a violin.” She understands that time, moving slowly, can prove itself a friend, but darkness, coming from within, can take that spot just as easily.

    As with Saint Cloud, Crutchfield proves she’s in it for the long haul. As open-ended as the album’s final refrain is – “I held it like a penny I found/ It might bring me something, it might weigh me down” – the group singing along makes it feel like a triumph, winding down a journey that’s worth more than it costs. The authenticity of Waxahatchee’s music is hard-won, the joy and love in it steadfast, her language as rich as the instrumentation that colours fluidly around it. But there’s a gravity to it all, and Crutchfield doesn’t buckle under it. She rises to the occasion, still awestruck and wholly devoted.

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    Katie Crutchfield calls ‘Right Back to It’, perhaps the best single released this year so far, the first real love song she’s ever written. “The fundamental parts of my whole songwriting style are built on being inspired by sadness, so it’s more about evoking...Album Review: Waxahatchee, 'Tigers Blood'