For those familiar with Waxahatchee's first three releases, American Weekend, Ivy Tripp, and Cerulean Salt, their new album might come as a surprise. The group, created and led by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Katie Crutchfield, virtually defined "lo-fi" on 2012's American Weekend, which is essentially a collection of short, fuzz-coated acoustic tunes. Cerulean Salt (2013) solved the fidelity problem and added some electricity, but it was still squarely in the indie guitar-rock territory. When Crutchfield signed with Merge Records and released Ivy Tripp in 2015, a larger production sound began to creep into the picture, along with some lovely layered vocal harmonies.
But if Ivy Tripp flirted with a big sound, Out in the Storm, the band's new album, dives headfirst into it. On the album's 10 tracks, Crutchfield and co-producer John Agnello pile on the cranked guitars, towering harmonies, and overdubs, layering the songs into dense, tightly wound epics. On the album's most striking track, "Recite Remorse," Crutchfield's blissfully cool voice floats in a pool of blurred guitar and keyboards, with only an insistent bass line holding the thread of the song together.
It's a sonic step forward by any standard, and it would seem like a difficult album for an indie-rock outfit to recreate live. In fact, Crutchfield says that the songs on Out in the Storm are just the opposite. "This is the first record I've done that came organically with my live band," she says. "They make the songs sound big. It actually sounds more like the record when we play live than any of my other records. I wanted it to be a big 'rock' album, because that's how this band plays."
And she picked the right person to co-produce the album with. Agnello's resume includes sonic salvos by Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, the Drive-By Truckers, and Social Distortion, among many others. He also proved a sympathetic collaborator, something Crutchfield says she needed for this album.
"John was amazing," she says. "Different artists need different things; some people like the producers to be harsh or blunt and have that power struggle, and other people like myself need to be coddled and nurtured. John was like that. He was really good at pushing me, and he also knew when to pull back and let me do my thing. He's got so many great records on his roster that he could've been a total dick and that would've been fine, but he was such a nice, good person. He nurtured me through the process and knew what I needed."
Another source of support in the studio was Katie's twin sister Allison, who played keyboards and sang on the album. The Crutchfields have been musical collaborators for years, initially playing together in a punk-pop band called P.S. Eliot.
"I really valued her being there," she says of Allison. "It was my first record in a studio, with a producer I didn't know well, so I needed her presence. And when I was on the fence about things, or about to go down a path I'd never gone down before, it was really helpful to have her there to kind of nod and be like, 'Yes. Do that.' Our creative relationship historically is just us giving each other permission to try something."
Perhaps one of the reasons Crutchfield needed that support is that she's classified Out in the Storm and Allison's concurrent Tourist in this Town, as "dueling breakup albums," and there are moments when it's clear she's dealing with a disintegrating, dysfunctional relationship in song.
"Are you tragic fiction?/ I always take the bait," she sings on "Never Been Wrong." Elsewhere, on the mid-tempo stomper "Brass Beam," she sings, "When I think about it I wanna punch the wall/ When I remember everything I wonder if I'll always feel small," with such dispassion that it's unnerving.
What's fascinating about these songs is that the melodies are so infectiously hummable that a casual listener might miss the heartbreak entirely. "I feel like from early on as a songwriter, I've been fascinated with the juxtaposition of a very pop sort of melody with stark or sad lyrics," she says. "I've played with it a lot over the years."
It can be daunting to reveal as much of one's elf as Crutchfield often does in her lyrics, but she's learned to find a balance between her art and her life. "I think I've always written that way," she says, "but anything that would be damaging I cloak in enough metaphor so it feels vague enough that I don't feel like it's invasive. As the popularity of the project grows and as the audience grows you would think that it would become more difficult, but so far, I've been really able to maintain that level of honesty. And it's cathartic for me to do that, regardless of whether it's my job or not. I've found a pretty good balance of being respectful to the people I write about and also being true to my experience."
Waxahatchee has also garnered a great deal of critical acclaim; Ivy Tripp landed on Rolling Stone, Stereogum, and The A.V. Club's album of the year lists, and Cerulean Salt made Pitchfork and Spin's year-end best of lists, as well. The critical acclaim is something that Crutchfield says she keeps at arms' length, for the most part. "I feel like I try my best to take it at face value," she says. "If I get a good review, it's almost like I have to let it go, because reading too much into it or keeping it at the forefront of my mind, even if it's positive, sometimes it confuses things. I have to stay in my own experience and not get too involved in that stuff or worry about it too much. It's like having a piece of cake; I have the cake and move on."