Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield knows about using limitation as tension. Her first album, American Weekend, stuck to lo-fi acoustics. The follow-up, Cerulean Salt, sounded more polished, added instruments, but still came off hushed and spare. Ivy Tripp, her first record for Merge, brightened the palate, added more keyboards, pushing the borders of her sound slightly outward.
So where to go with her new record, Out in the Storm? For Crutchfield, the answer came in a new set of restraints, which is a smart move. Expanding or altering your sound can become an arms race in indie rock. It can lead to your music morphing from intimate to arena-sized to too big to succeed (It could also lead to album titles that reflect expanse, like, say, Everything Now, or American Dream.). But rather than spread out further, Crutchfield took her songs into a studio with producer John Agnello, after recording all her previous albums with former Swearin’ member Kyle Gilbride.
That shift to the studio doesn’t open the songs on Out in the Storm up. Instead, it leans them out in a fresh way. And these songs should be lean, because the words here are hurt, angry, fighting to make sense of the past while also defiantly moving forward. It’s an album that deals with the fallout that comes with the end of relationships, and it reveals a stunning new turn in Crutchfield’s songwriting. The bittersweet feel of past songs shifts here into a back and forth between clear-eyed anger and as-yet-unshakable regret. Crutchfield’s voice and words are strong here, cutting right to the bone.
The limitations that once shaped Crutchfield’s music may be gone, but the stories she tells here definitely reflect a voice that feels trapped. Opener “Never Been Wrong” digs into how to be around an ex in public, around someone you know differently, maybe better, than everyone around you. While he may be “untethered and carefree,” Crutchfield admits “I will unravel / No one sees what I see.” Here, the narrative voice is stuck with what she knows, unable to explain it to the other people in the room, as the ex gets to be the nonchalant life of the party. On “Recite Remorse,” the trap feels more intentionally imposed by this other person. “You were so condescending / you wrote me and gave me a part,” Crutchfield sings, and you can hear each word sharpened against her teeth.
But these songs, despite being stories about feeling hemmed in, aren’t about being a victim. Crutchfield delivers some cutting truths here, to a person who thinks it is their “God-given right” to feel sure they’ve “never been wrong,” to a person who creates art by manufacturing themselves as “a sufferer, a stepping stone.” And the thing they create — “narcissistic injury disguised as masterpiece” — only matters as a way to get attention by “herd[ing] your friends into a gallery.” Over the course of the record Crutchfield peels away pretensions and personas to uncover those things no one else could see in public on “Never Been Wrong.”
But the album isn’t merely lashing out. What makes Out in the Storm smart, and subtly layered, is that it knows confessional writing is a double-edged sword. Where lesser songwriters would simply lay bare the villain of the story, Crutchfield presents a voice that recognizes its role in the “storm.” The album opens with a tough admission: “I spent all my time learning how to defeat / you at your own game, it’s embarrassing.” Later in the album Crutchfield is “reciting lines of remorse,” which is different than feeling genuinely sorry, and claims to have “one foot out the door.” And then there’s “Silver,” where she sings “I went out in the storm, and I’m never returning.” She admits her agency here, in knowing there’s a storm but heading into it anyway. And while this may be her storm too, there’s a strength and realization in this line, that the only way out is through.
Out in the Storm presents music that reflects the lean anger — aimed at oneself and others — of these moments. Songs like “Silver,” “Never Been Wrong,” and “Brass Beam” are crunchy rockers, and the taut distortion gives Crutchfield space to play with her singing, adding a rough edge to her singing even when it softens. “No Question” borrows some of the bright yet thorny layers of Ivy Tripp, and morphs them into Waxahatchee’s grandest rock song, one that makes Crutchfield’s increasingly angry delivery feel all the more intimidating. This is Crutchfield’s most immediate rock music since her time in P.S. Eliot with her sister, Allison. But this doesn’t feel like retread. Instead, it’s an inversion of the intimacy of her previous records. Where frustration sat at the edges of those songs for us to find in the quiet moments between lines, Out in the Storm takes dead aim at that feeling and fleshes it out. What it leads to is unclear — at the record’s end, Crutchfield is quietly “fading away” — but the story the record tells is one of defiance and maybe catharsis, of striking back against someone else’s narrative, of having your story heard.
That story is a bracing one, one that hurts but also never cedes to the hurt. It’s also at its best when Crutchfield keeps the momentum going. The louder and leaner songs here whip you into the same frenzy Crutchfield is in, and somewhere in that frenzy you start to see the little details and subtleties in her songwriting. The drifting open of “Recite Remorse,” and the acoustic turn on “A Little More” mix up the textures here, but they also take the foot off the gas a bit, stepping back into sounds we’ve heard before from Waxahatchee. They’re still fine moments, but they take a backseat to the propulsive anger and resilience of the rest of the record. Out in the Storm is a deeply impressive record, one that finds Crutchfield honing the strengths we knew she had, discovering new ones, and adding another strong record a rare sort of catalog — one that is consistent but unafraid to push for something new.
Or order the album directly from Merge Records.