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On 'Tigers Blood,' Waxahatchee is in her anti-eras era

<em>Tigers Blood</em> is songwriter Katie Crutchfield's sixth album as Waxahatchee.
Molly Matalon
Courtesy of the artist
Tigers Blood is songwriter Katie Crutchfield's sixth album as Waxahatchee.

Even if you've never listened to a note of Taylor Swift's music in your life, it's undeniable that we're living through our eras era. The smart branding of the pop superstar's record-breaking world tour has propagated the idea, taken from the language of stan culture, that life passes in clear chapters. Social media helps us mark those chapters with distinct visual identities, highly specific fashion -cores stitching together an aesthetic micro-history. This mentality of clear demarcation has also found a match in the language of absolutes that has sprung up around interpersonal relationships: boundaries, cutting out "toxic" friends; packing up, shipping out and moving on from the mess.

I can understand the appeal of this kind of containment. The notion that you've closed the door on a certain period of life offers a sense of control, as well as the reassurance that you're categorically no longer that person. It's a lovely fantasy — one that seems to me like trying to build dams in the rushing river of life. Tigers Blood, Katie Crutchfield's gorgeous sixth album as Waxahatchee, sails down that river. The 35-year-old Alabama songwriter understands that we do not evolve tidily from chrysalis to caterpillar to butterfly, but stumble along a zig-zag of pitfalls and revelations, the best of which you can only hope you have the humility to learn from.

Her last record, 2020's Saint Cloud, was the kind that found her blinking into a new dawn. It was written as she got sober, a dramatic gear shift for a lifer of the road and all the hard living that comes with it. She pivoted from indie-rock back toward the country heartland of her Southern youth, opening up brand new shafts of light on her once-knotted songwriting, and tentatively tested the strength of a good relationship, with fellow musician Kevin Morby, anxious about whether it could hold the fullness of her.

Tigers Blood has no such plot twist. Crutchfield's sobriety and relationship have endured. Saint Cloud may have doubled her audience, she estimated recently, but she's said she disregarded any pressure to capitalize on its success by shooting for the rafters — or going pop, as she and producer Brad Cook briefly entertained before discomfort got the better of them — instead choosing to refine her sound and themes, an intentional attempt at artistic longevity in the vein of her heroes Tom Petty and Lucinda Williams, as well as keeping her life manageable. (She kept things fresh by inviting in fellow Southern rocker MJ Lenderman, and let his off-kilter harmonies and wandering guitar take precedent over the role she had imagined he might play on the album.) It's an appealingly anti-eras mentality: less reinvention than continual refinement — an intent reflected in the striking sensitivity of Crutchfield's songwriting.

On Tigers Blood, no bond is linear or static. Some of these songs sound ready to run, bursting from the traps; others take their ease with intoxicating beauty. Love boomerangs and comes back. Sisters have an unexpected showdown about their respective heady and cautious approaches to life. Crutchfield can't even predict her own nature: The shortcomings she seems most certain of barely register with her loving partner; the defiant oblivion and "blood loss" of self-delusion on the recklessly euphoric cowpunk of "Ice Cold" proves to be "such a weak performance after all" on the easy reconciliation of "Lone Star Lake," a banjo amble so reassuring you can practically feel a hand reaching from the speaker to smooth your hair as you listen.

Crutchfield's life may have settled, but her lens remains restless. Individual songs rarely tell a whole or consistent story, moving without clear telegraphing between intimacies, observations and motivations. None of these vicissitudes are reasons to throw her hands up and lament the mess. She observes opposing forces like a poetic physicist wondering if and how they might be reconciled and, for the most part, places conversation over ultimatum. If the comfortably diffuse Tigers Blood has some larger theme, it might be resisting the script. There are lines that seem to be about taking the easy route as a songwriter, but others about the naivety of integrity; not feeling beholden to stories that you used to tell about yourself ("Some folktale I'm keeping alive whole the curtain falls / Dramatic demise," she sings on "Ice Cold"), but not self-scrutinizing to the point of paralysis either.

Curiously, the most straightforward song on Tigers Blood is the one Crutchfield has called the hardest for her to write. "Bored," she said when it was released as a single, is about her anger with a friend she needed to leave behind — a "scary" topic for someone whose self-professed comfort zone as a writer "lies somewhere on the emotional spectrum of sadness and heartache." Yet she proves a natural, setting aside the rest of the record's country warmth to seethe and sting, the chorus a twisted thrash of guitar and battered drums.

Of course, she has precedent here: You can trace this sound back to Crutchfield's origins in the DIY punk band P.S. Eliot, which she and her twin, Allison, formed as teenagers in Alabama. But there is a carefulness to the writing that goes beyond instinctive, inchoate youthful catharsis. The ticking pace in the first verse indicates a narrator with one eye on the clock, plotting their escape from a situation that's making their teeth grind. Moreover, the too-tidy nesting rhyme scheme in the second verse seems to resound with contempt for a confidante content to grab at easy answers. "And what a blessing," Crutchfield sings slyly, letting the last word flare. "Say you've been manifesting."

This may count as the ultimate insult. Her friend is banking on simply willing good fortune into existence, forgoing the hard yards of working to cultivate one's life. (As Crutchfield sings about how she plays her role and fills up this person's "empty cup," you can practically hear them prattling away obliviously.) It's anathema to Crutchfield's acute observance of the push and pull, the sacrifice and grace, the openness that goes into any relationship, including the one you maintain with yourself.

Let Tigers Blood spark that curiosity within you. In its palimpsest of memories and interior monologue, one line especially sticks out to me. The lead single, "Right Back to It," is a gorgeous ramble through the safe harbor of a relationship, one secure enough to endure the sudden swerves of one partner testing the other's devotion. "I get ahead of myself / Refusing anyone's help," Crutchfield laments. I am one month, one day younger than Crutchfield, 35, and I recognize adulthood as I've experienced it in her songs: If one's 20s are unselfconscious accumulations of experience, the turn of the next decade is about identifying the impulses that drive your successes and failures and working with them as best you can. "Might be good on my own, but I ain't running away / I wanna chase it to the end," she sings on "Burns Out at Midnight," a decisiveness reflected in the peaceful, spacious arrangement.

It is not in the nature of Tigers Blood to offer answers, but its clearest talisman comes on "Crimes of the Heart," a beautifully nervous song about what might have been if Crutchfield's old instinct for starting over had prevailed. "Don't overextend," she croons. "Hail the darkness you can befriend." Contrary to what self-help hacks might have you think, no one can manifest pain out of their lives, nor reach revelation via wishful thinking. Those things take hard work, a commitment to staying honest, a conviction that "self-actualization" is really the work of learning how to be in community with others. With its intimate lens and shaggy, sunlit benedictions, Tigers Blood makes it clear that it's worth it.

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Laura Snapes