Album Review: Waxahatchee – Tigers Blood

[ANTI-; 2024]

Arguably the hardest part of getting sober is staying sober. Katie Crutchfield, the songwriter behind Waxahatchee, was never a full-blown alcoholic, but she is now sober and has come to a place where she now understands that you don’t have to be a “tortured” artist to make great music – an idea that has been proliferated by the work and lives of some of Crutchfield’s biggest inspirations, from Townes Van Zandt to Jason Molina. Her 2020 album Saint Cloud was a celebration of her new clear-minded approach to life and music, but on its follow up, Tigers Blood, she looks to illuminate the long tunnel of life that follows that initial burst of newfound freedom.

Listening back to earlier Waxahatchee material, the influence of alcohol and other substances – not just on Crutchfield but on those around her – is clear. The heaviness and depression lived in her scratchy, more lo-fi recordings, where her voice was often husky like the morning after a late night drinking and smoking. The turn to sobriety on Saint Cloud also saw her open up her voice to its clearest and most powerful and saw her utilise Americana and roots rock sounds, no longer feeling like she had to be edgy for the sake of it. The record hummed with maturity and reintroduced Waxahatchee as a classic American artist.

Tigers Blood continues this trajectory, again relying on twanging Southern rock sounds to elucidate Crutchfield’s knotty feelings. While she is now in a healthier place, she still lives with the ghosts of those youthful indiscretions, past friends and questionable actions. This record largely delves into those memories, revisiting them from a mature perspective – though the rawness, in patches, is still evident. 

“3 Sisters” opens the record with glacial piano that gradually builds to a stirring indie rock reckoning. While the exact configuration of blame and connection between the titular trio may be hard to pinpoint, Crutchfield’s voice and wording gives us more than enough to feel that there are ancient scarred-over wounds at play. Whether she’s admonishing “You drive like you’re wanted in four states” or admitting “I was always the one unsteady”, there’s a clear love and hurt of the kind that could only have been inflicted by someone with whom you have a familial bond. The repeated line “If you’re not living then you’re dying” – and the rueful way in which Crutchfield sings it – gives the impression that this is a mantra the “3 Sisters” once held, but now can be seen as a reckless approach to life.

In exploring these visitations from her past, she is able to extract what’s changed and what remains part of her current mindset. The rowdy “Ice Cold” seems to be an admission of her past tendencies to over dramatise (“We say the same thing / Yet we argue”) and to be easily swayed (“I might fall in love with the next story I’m told”), but asserts that she’s past that phase; “I’ll never have another burning hot / I run ice cold”. The high and lonesome acoustic strummer “Crimes of the Heart” is more painful, a quiet dive back into a toxic relationship where the unhealthiness now strikes as obvious in every image she conjures, her helplessness evident. The following “Crowbar” is less passive, as she comes out swinging at a former flame. The delightfully upbeat interplay between guitar and voice bely the harshness of lines like “If I’m not back soon / don’t come looking for me”, while more mystifying lines like “bending my crowbar with a tension that’s telekinetic” still transmit her latent fury, despite the opacity. 

Not all of her reflections are so painful, though. “Lone Star Lake” recalls a romance that once burned red hot and which she recalls fondly, despite its frayed edges. It may now be “ancient history”, but she recalls how she would “kiss you like a fever dream companion” and rage around happily “in the drunkenness of free reign”, admitting now from her older vantage point “My life’s been mapped out to a T / But I’m always a little lost”. The mid-album rocker “Bored” takes a sweeping and appreciative view of the wear and tear she’s put herself through. She may admit “my spine’s a rotted two by four / barely hanging on,” but you can practically hear her smirking as she yowls “I get bored”, signalling that she wouldn’t change the hard-working artist lifestyle for any other. 

Now an elder statesperson of the indie scene, Crutchfield has been inviting younger artists to record with her on recent Waxahatchee records. On Saint Cloud it was Jake Kmiecik, Bill Lennox and Bobby Colombo, all of the band Bonny Doon. This time out it’s guitarist MJ Lenderman (of Wednesday) and drummer Spencer Tweedy (who, despite now being 28, will always seem young just by dint of being Jeff’s son). 

Lenderman in particular plays a starring role, duetting with Crutchfield on a number of the record’s highlights. Lead single “Right Back To It” is the stand-out, the first unabashed Waxahatchee love song wherein Crutchfield traces the vicissitudes of a long-term relationship. She acknowledges that, in emotional stasis like this, you can sometimes go a little bit crazy, but that person will always be there for you, a rock to rely upon and to guide you back to sanity – Lenderman’s harmonies dualling the message and making it clear that this is a deal that goes both ways. However, on the harmonica imbued “Burns Out At Midnight” his harmonies add fire in the opposite regard; the story of a relationship breaking down made more potent as he doubles up on lines like “We go another round, I got nothing to say / It don’t make a difference.”

Some of Crutchfield’s finest and most honest songs to date are tucked away in the final stretch of Tigers Blood. “365” is a stripped-down trip into the pains of addiction and relationships with addicts, Crutchfield speaking plainly of the unhealthy behaviour in heart-rending lines like “I had my own ideas / But I carried you on my shoulders anyway”. The decision to track the song live and simplistically pays dividends in the way Crutchfield’s emotion and regret come through so clearly, especially in the piercing peaks where there’s little other than her voice singing “I catch your poison arrow / I catch your same disease / Bow like a weeping willow / Buckling at the knees / Begging you please”. 

The following “The Wolves” seems to be a direct acknowledgement of the difficulty of maintaining sobriety. Among the slowly loping trudge where she admits “these old habits’ll weigh you down”, there’s also an air of a victory lap – or at least an admission of pride at her self-control – in the way she sings “I do it all for the glory / Not the wind shaking off my leaves” and the satisfying twang of Lenderman’s guitar as the song’s finale stretches on.

With Tigers Blood, Katie Crutchfield has consolidated her position as one of the finest songwriters in modern independent music. Simultaneously, she is still subtly pushing herself in new ways, disentangling complex memories with unshowy but undoubted bravery. She shines a light on the unspectacular truths of being in a settled life, knowing that the wilder parts are in the past, even as the temptations remain just beyond the window. By using her clear mind to acknowledge all that has made up who she is, she has put together the puzzle of her past through the lens of today to create something that transcends its personal nature to truly resonate with her widening audience.