Album Review: Plains – I Walked With You A Ways

[Anti-; 2022]

Some albums are so indelible that they seep into every moment of a given experience. When Katie Crutchfield (aka Waxahatchee) and Jess Williamson’s album as Plains hit my inbox, I was traveling on beautiful Jeju Island in South Korea, and it rapidly became the soundtrack for just about every moment of the journey.

As my luck would have it, a typhoon was passing through, so the sojourn was spent drenched, near constantly, in rain. Whether driving through torrential downpours (“You gotta shield yourself from stormy weather” from “Easy” came to take on a more literal meaning) or taking respite in our accommodation with my traveling partner and some wine, the musical backing was consistently I Walked With You a Ways. The songwriters’ desire to pay tribute to timeless modern country pop classics has yielded an album that makes for ideal backing to any memorable experience.

The title, much like the music itself, is deceptively simple. I Walked With You A Ways implies a lazy, carefree stroll, but the pair’s work reaches so much deeper, mining the human experience itself. This is nowhere better displayed than on the closing title track, which reveals the titular phrase to be a metaphor for a relationship that ultimately fell apart. Even in the great canon of break up songs, it’s one that manages to stand tall. This is largely thanks to a lack of ire, or even a sense of loss. Instead, it’s filled with acceptance and appreciation, softening the blow of emotional severance by focusing on the good that came along the way: their lives were improved, simply because they were able to spend some time with their former significant other. It’s a quietly sweeping, profoundly striking blip on an album full of them.

While Waxahatchee toyed with country on her acclaimed Saint Cloud, here, encouraged by the presence of Williamson, she fully embraces it. These are warm, lived-in songs, the sort that feel instantly classic, becoming canon without ever feeling like they’re trying all that hard to. “Abilene”, a track Williamson brought to the table and Crutchfield encouraged her to bring to fruition, is another that deals with heartbreak, albeit in a more wistful manner. The titular city represents the failed relationship, with the song’s protagonist leaving the area behind, just as they do their partner.

Still, above all, this is an album full of warmth, even if heartbreak lurks in the corners. Opener “Summer Sun” finds the two harmonizing in perfect unison, with pleasant strumming and bright singing offsetting the song’s melancholy core: “it’s really no one’s fault – but I tried to warn you.” Lead single “Problem with It” is more confrontational. “If you can’t do better than that, babe, I got a problem with it,” the duo bristle over thornier guitar, taking a surely hapless lover to task.

Still, this is above all music with the power to heal. I Walked with You a Ways is kind; it’s giving in a way that music rarely manages to be. Beyond granting the power to let go, it offers the chance to embrace whatever sagging woes have come to weigh on your life, as light as a feather, yet with the power of the fiercest friend coming to your defence. It somehow has the power to make you smile and cry at once.

On our closing night in Jeju, we sat outside our room, I Walked With You a Ways seeping from my Bluetooth. As luck would have it, our accommodation’s owner, a seasoned older man who’d built the structure himself, had guests over, and they gradually seemed to gravitate in our direction, as if called by the siren song of the music. We spoke in broken tongues as they inquired as to what we were listening to. As the conversation grew, I let the album repeat itself, and we gradually drifted away towards the edge of his property, the album becoming a distant call, drifting off into the wilderness as if searching for another lover. It’s the sort of thing that’s sure to find one. As “Hurricane” promises – “Baby, I’ll come back to you.”