Waxahatchee's Stunning 'Tigers Blood' Courses with Life

BY Noah CiubotaruPublished Mar 20, 2024


The new Wim Wenders film, Perfect Days, follows a middle-aged man named Hirayama who's employed as a public restroom cleaner in Tokyo. He lives alone in a small, sparse apartment, wakes each morning before the sun rises, and moves through a routine of rituals: he folds up the mat on which he sleeps in the centre of the room, tenderly sprays water over a collection of potted saplings and eventually makes his way out the door, stopping to glance up at the sky as he crosses the threshold to another workday. In his van he waits until he sees the first sliver of sun, then pops in a cassette to consecrate the moment. The songs played are mostly canonical, tracks from the '60s and '70s that have resounded across generations: The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay," and Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," among others. They're songs both bigger than life and about life itself — ones that, in so many contexts, can sound like they're cutting to some simple universal core of experience, resonating in a way that feels impossibly pure.

While yet to be tested by time, the songs on Waxahatchee's sixth record, Tigers Blood, seem to possess a similar ability to cut to that core, so primed to soundtrack the oscillations of living. Katie Crutchfield's last record as Waxahatchee, 2020's Saint Cloud, also bore that trace of the universal, a pervasive and consuming sense of aliveness. Released that first fateful March of the pandemic, the album was lauded on best-of-the-year lists for having offered a form of collective salvation. Putting aside the somewhat regrettable way music was written about as a therapeutic balm at that time, it's notable that Crutchfield's discography had rarely, if ever, been praised on those grounds beforehand. After thrashing around the Birmingham and Philadelphia punk scenes in the Ackleys and P.S. Eliot — alongside twin sister Allison — Crutchfield went solo and built Waxahatchee on nervy, bristling LPs like 2012's American Weekend and 2013's Cerulean Salt. They were acclaimed, beloved to this day as integral pieces within indie rock's modern history, but not for radiating any particularly life-affirming warmth.

Saint Cloud was a return-to-roots record, a re-embracing of Crutchfield's Alabaman upbringing and love of country music that, as she explained in press, had been neglected earlier in her career out of the stubborn teenage urge to forge a path detached from one's past and pursue a cool, big-city ambiguity. She leaned into her Southern accent on Saint Cloud, and her voice carried a renewed clarity. When she sang "West Memphis is on fire in the light of day," a sun burned in your mind with the same brilliance as that conjured by Simone and the Kinks; when she sang of lilacs sipping water, "marking the slow, slow, slow passing of time," you were brought to the state of stillness that lingers beneath the motions of everyday life, just as Redding sat on the dock and watched ships roll in and away, letting time wash over him. Crutchfield tapped into a powerful channel, and the stopped world listened.

Tigers Blood is another tour de force: a brawny, brainy, rollicking excursion through Crutchfield's heartland, revving with the power of a pickup truck. Like Saint Cloud, it was produced by Brad Cook and recorded at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, TX, but this time with a little help from Brad's brother Phil, Spencer Tweedy, and, to great anticipation, the Asheville up-and-comer MJ Lenderman. Lenderman's been building an impressive body of work both under his own name and as guitarist for the buzzy alt-country band Wednesday, and as Crutchfield noted in a recent newsletter, "Brad and I both credit hearing Jake [Lenderman] sing on an early demo of 'Right Back to It' as a moment in which we understood what this record was supposed to be."

"Right Back to It" certainly captures something of Tigers Blood's spirit, with its patient banjo, leisurely pace and the serene, amiable union of Crutchfield and Lenderman's voices throughout the choruses. It's about knowing steadiness can be found and knowing where — or in whom — to find it, even while occasionally swerving off course. Across the album, Crutchfield sounds reconciled with the unpredictable and uncontrollable, basking in the afterglow of Saint Cloud's fruitful reckonings. "Lone Star Lake" is a kindred piece to "Right Back to It," another banjo-backed tune that paints a perfect, languorous day, opening with a pillowy suggestion to laze about in bed before heading out to the titular Kansas lake. "Companion, ancient history / We burn that story like the Bama heat," Crutchfield sings, weaving a thread through place and time to arrive at a deeper appreciation of where she finds herself with her partner Kevin Morby — two songwriters dedicated to a life of shaping and trading stories. Within this tranquility, she acknowledges its impermanence: "My life's been mapped out to a T / But I'm always a little lost."

Distinct from the searing self-excavations and romantic turmoil that marked Waxahatchee's earlier records, much of Tigers Blood ruminates on what it means to pursue a career as a musician, both in the current landscape and beyond it. With the industry collapsing from all sides, it can seem there's not much promising about the artist's vocation in 2024; yet Crutchfield eyes down these encroachments and burrows her feet deeper in the soil, remaining steadfast in her commitment to a life of artistry free of compromise. On breathtaking opener "3 Sisters," she assesses the burdens she's taken on ("Some fuel their bottom line on my life") while admitting she can't imagine herself doing otherwise: "I make a living crying, it ain't fair / Not budging." These considerations carry over into "Evil Spawn," where the weighted, searching tone of "3 Sisters" — diffused through its wincing melody and blooming piano chords — is eclipsed by a giddy drumbeat and hopeful guitar riff, the kind of inviting folk-rock that would've been equally at home on Saint Cloud. At the outset of "Evil Spawn," Crutchfield surrenders the financial worries and revels in the realization that she can shield herself from the pressures of a corroding industry, carving a career suited to her quiet Kansas City life: "Take my money, I don't work that hard / I fall asleep in the beating heart / Of a dying breed, peddling some lost art / Watch it fade, watch it fall apart."

Over the dimly lit dive-bar warmth of "Burns Out at Midnight," stoked by streaks of harmonica and dobro, Crutchfield's twangy inflections leap as she sings, "I get home from working hard, honey / State the obvious and watch it work its way in / We been checked out chasing the money / And I've been trying to tell him it ain't no way to live." Lenderman joins her for another incandescent chorus, and then his voice continues trailing hers into the second verse, sounding like two people who've resolved to stick it out together, to not get worn down or cleaved apart by the exhaustions of labour. The stable comfort Crutchfield has found in the domestic life of her thirties is conveyed throughout Tigers Blood; "This old house gave me revelations / I wasn't prepared to receive." She sounds clear-eyed, unobstructed — ideally positioned to impart that freedom to listeners.  

Crutchfield has described having written most of Tigers Blood during a "hot hand spell," and that sense of brilliant urgency pervades several tracks, their bursts of momentum balancing out the record's calmest stretches. After the lift of "Evil Spawn," "Ice Cold" is as an absolute barnburner, studded with Southern signifiers ("Rusted-out sign / Jesus loves you") that create an instant sense of place. Right out the gate Crutchfield bellows, "Run it back, boys," that last word dragged out with rousing abandon, and if you were to skip to nearly any point in the song you'd hear her howling, the band just as unhinged as they spin off into an ecstatic jam beneath Crutchfield's final, almost-unintelligible yelps. Writing and singing fiercely, she comes across as utterly consumed by her love of the craft ("I might fall in love with the next story I'm told / But I'll never have another burning hot coursing through me"), elated at having found her sound and purpose.

Her hot hand meets an uncharacteristic hotheadedness on "Bored," a blistering song about when grace has been depleted and one is forced to accept the dissolution of a relationship (in this case a platonic one). Through an outlaw's snarl, Crutchfield digs into her literary bag — a hallmark of her music — and pulls out spiky fragments: "20 questions / Dexterous protesting / And what a blessing / Say you've been manifesting." That same fiery spirit appears on "Crowbar," a stunning tearjerker with its nostalgic electric guitar licks and straining vocal melodies, this time aimed at contemplating what it means to be true in one's art. "You can take it pretty far on a prayer that's pale and synthetic," she sings, imagining someone, or an alternate version of herself, doing it for the wrong reasons. But perhaps what makes the song most affecting is the way Crutchfield understands herself as someone so wholly and helplessly devoted to the importance of great art. "You get choked up reading the classics," she says at one point, contrasted later when she "take[s] a sip of something I can barely taste / Dull as dust." She knows the difference.

Again, I think of Wenders's Hirayama, reading William Faulkner and Patricia Highsmith by a lamp next to his mat on the floor until his eyelids get heavy with sleep; biking to the same used bookstore once a week on his day-off to pick up a single paperback that'll keep him company at night; eating lunch in the same park every day, where he takes out his film camera and tries, futilely, to capture the magic glimmer of sunlight falling through the leaves overhead. Tigers Blood tracks a turning toward similarly small satisfactions, a life of modest proportions; its geographical units are those of the home and the town. Examining the volatilities of being emotionally and fatefully entangled with someone — rendered ever more complicated, in this context, by a loved one's addiction — on "365," Crutchfield intones, "We both haunt this old lifeless town," her plaintive backing vocal amplifying the ache in the lead. And on the closing title track, Lenderman echoes alongside Crutchfield's chorus, transmitting notions of legacy, continuity and community. A group congregates to sing that chorus a final time, a village of voices sharing the heft of Crutchfield's musings: "I held it like a penny I found / It might bring me something / It might weigh me down."

On "3 Sisters," Crutchfield sings, "It plays on my mind / How the time passing / Covers you like a friend," and that outlook makes sense as an outgrowth of embracing the kind of blunt, three-chords-and-the-truth truism she shares later: "If you ain't living / Then you're dying." Her decision to keep trudging ahead in a writhing music industry and burning world is because she sees herself as having established, against all odds, a perfect pocket within it. "There ain't nothing to it, babe," she assures on "Evil Spawn," "We can roll around in the disarray / In the final act of the good old days." Amidst inescapable talk of disappearing ways of life, perishing professions and the end of times, Crutchfield imagines there might still be goodness to be found. We can watch things fall apart, but it's not a tragic prospect — there's a life to be made in the aftermath.

(ANTI- Records)

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