Reviewing my 2020: Disillusionment, quarantine, and Waxahatchee

I’m back! Although it’s highly unnecessary to regale you all with tales of my hiatus, I’m going to do it anyway. Between my last article and now, I’ve completed a semester of school — only one semester now lies between me and my teaching certification, thank god. In the space between then and now, I’ve definitely still been writing — it’s just that the writing I’ve been doing isn’t of interest to anyone (myself included). Reflecting on my experiences dealing with behavioural issues in the classroom or discussing the opportunities provided by introducing multimodality to the classroom does not make for lively reading, and I would wish it upon no one (except for the professors who assigned them to me).

But anyway — this is year-end content season baby (or at least it was when I started this article three weeks ago)! A perfect time to get back into the game. And while I’m aware that the traditional year-end listicle is the gold standard of Internet culture criticism, I’m going to steer slightly away from that ideal here. Instead of writing little blurbs on my top ten or top five albums of the year, I want to focus on a single album, the one that stuck with me the most this year, the one I kept coming back to. Part of the reason for this is that I’m just one person, a person who didn’t listen to even a tiny fraction of new music released this year, and any list I would produce would certainly be lacking a number of high-quality albums. But also, a one-album rule provides me both a severe constraint to work within — no hedging when it comes to choosing! — and the space to not only luxuriate in the album’s sounds and words, but also take a more wide-lens look at the year in music and my personal relationship to it without worrying about what I’ll say about the next album or whatever.

Essentially all of 2020’s cultural retrospectives contained some sort of sermon on society’s shared experience with the (still ongoing) coronavirus pandemic. This makes sense, obviously, as the pandemic was a massive occurrence in even the astronomical sense, warping space and time so that this year felt somehow dilated and compressed simultaneously (both the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl and Bernie Sanders winning the Iowa caucus happened this February). Popular culture was in no way immune to this — there were nearly no movies released this year, theatres and galleries were shuttered (many permanently), and live concerts were non-existent.

Album releases also felt the pain of the pandemic, both structurally and spiritually. On a practical level, artists couldn’t get together in studios to record, necessitating the use of file-sharing services and online collaborations in the effort to create new music. The peak of this ultra-online, physically isolated aesthetic was Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now which was created online in full public view, with Charli distributing demos and snippets of unreleased songs to ask fans for input, sharing text messages between herself and her producers, and undertaking a quarantine concert series. And it worked for Charli, as the album was uniformly excellent. Other artists came up with novel solutions to navigate our post-congregatory life as well — electro-pop weirdos 100 gecs put together an online concert that took place in Minecraft’s Nether area, with performances from Kero Kero Bonito, A.G. Cook, Charli XCX, and 100 gecs themselves. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ performed a hilariously DIY, distanced version of their 2006 cut “Phenomena” with Karen O’s son opening the door to the ‘stage’ (streamer-strewn closet) where she performed. And although I’m getting a little too far removed from musical performances, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rapid rise during the pandemic of online platforms as tools for political engagement, peaking with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s stream of the mafia-style video game Among Us on Twitch last month, which saw her stream surpass 400,000 concurrent viewers. 2020 was the year we all moved online, whether we wanted to or not.

On a more psychological plane, the pandemic crept into the sounds and lyrics of many high-profile releases, fluidly conforming to the space each artist gave it. The most prominent of these were Taylor Swift’s earthy diptych of meticulously positioned quarantine albums, folklore and evermore, both of which I would probably slot into the top half of Swift releases, but albums as varied (and as excellent) as Adrianne Lenker’s meditative songs/instrumentals to Jeff Rosenstock’s anxiety-laden NO DREAM all bore strong pandemic signifiers in their sparse sounds or lyrical themes of solitude and disquiet. And in Swift’s case, the pandemic even provided a framework in which to release the works — all of the pseudo-DIY marketing Swift did on social media made sure to highlight that her isolation was the impetus for releasing these collections (note this isn’t a bad thing necessarily, just an observation of tactics).

Taylor Swift’s folklore announcement via

If I’m being completely honest, my struggles with the pandemic and the ensuing economic, emotional, and physical malaise have been mostly detached, seen from a distance. I’ve had very little trouble adapting to the minutiae of quarantine, which is due at a foundational level to my relative economic security as well as a committed partner, family, and friends (plus my overwhelming desire to be at home most of the time anyway). My concerns have stayed mostly wide-focus — worries about the damage the pandemic has done to our workers and students, about apathetic government response, about ever-increasing corporate overreach and exploitation in search of the grimmest, bloodiest scraps of profit, pandemic be damned. Generally, I’ve been concerned that while our current circumstances have highlighted the ever-present injustices and iniquities of our society, we’ll be content to forget it all in a quest to achieve a normalcy that never really existed in the first place and will certainly not magically reappear. I thought more about the collective us this year than I ever have before.

The albums I listened to the most this year reflect these feelings in ways both direct and distorted. They allowed me to diffract and compress amorphous, unsolvable worries into shapes that were simpler to comprehend, more individualized —personal triumphs and tribulations in place of structural and metaphysical uncertainties, but still centred on the human experience and all the jagged shards that comprise it. I spent hours with Tom Waits’ 1985 masterpiece Rain Dogs, sidling down dim alleys with its downtrodden and outcast characters. I became deeply acquainted with the fourteen songs about seven people (and two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys) from the warm and plainspoken collection of vignettes on the Mountain Goats’ indelible All Hail West Texas. And more often than any other release, I found myself returning again and again to Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud, my favourite album of 2020.

Katie Crutchfield started the decade performing with her twin sister Allison in the incredibly twee-ishly named and very cult-popular band P.S. Eliot, making ramshackle and lo-fi rock. Even then, under a thick film of fuzz and low-budget production, the melodic sensibilities and songwriting chops of the sisters shone through on songs like “Incoherent Love Songs”. They released two albums together (although I recommend the retrospective compilation 2007–2011 for starters) before dissolving the band and moving onto other ventures. Allison fronts the emo-tinged rock outfit Swearin’ in addition to releasing pop-forward music as a solo artist. Katie, meanwhile, started performing as Waxahatchee, named for Waxahatchee Creek, a tributary of the Coosa River in her home state of Alabama. Crutchfield released four albums of plaintive, cutting bedroom folk under the Waxahatchee moniker prior to the release of Saint Cloud, slowly increasing production value and amassing something of a backing band over each release. The music on these albums was simple, a dais on which Crutchfield’s songwriting could sit. And this made sense, since her songwriting was the primary draw for those early albums at least in my estimation — direct, distinct, and often devastating, it spoke of deteriorated towns and deteriorating relationships, of open expanses and dirt roads, of the rote trials that are unique to each of us, ones that seem so small from the outside but take up unnatural space within you. She lays out a thesis on “Grass Stain” from her debut album American Weekend: “I don’t care / If I’m too young to be unhappy / Or I recklessly impair / This newfangled proclivity / And I won’t answer my phone / And I’ll never leave my bedroom.”

Music video for “Grass Stain” via Don Giovanni Records

With the release of Saint Cloud, however, Waxahatchee’s ascetic worldview melts away, leaving behind a towering spectacle of hope, perseverance, and memories preserved in amber. In the leadup to the album’s release, Crutchfield spoke honestly about her new sobriety and how it allowed her more freedom in her songwriting, and this shows in the final product. Both the lyrics and the music on Saint Cloud are clearer, more well-defined, as if a fog recently cleared and revealed thoughts previously only half-remembered. The template is set right from the start, with opener “Oxbow” framed with gorgeous piano and a layered vocal take featuring Crutchfield’s trademark lyrical mix of obliqueness and specificity (“A speck in the oxbow / depressing by design”). It’s apparent that while she lost none of her storytelling ability the sound of this album is markedly different, wiping away the grime and feedback and applying a liberal coat of sparkling Americana in the vein of John Prine and Linda Ronstadt and Little Feat.

Crutchfield named the album Saint Cloud after her father’s hometown in Florida, a small city outside of Orlando. When I was much younger, my family would go on vacation to Florida nearly every year, staying in a trailer near St. Petersburg that my grandparents would rent, spending days sitting on the beach or watching the Blue Jays playing in Grapefruit League games (I’m surely getting too self-indulgent here, but bear with me for a minute). We always drove down to Florida from Ontario, always spent a night in a roadside motel somewhere in Tennessee. I was quite young during these vacations and remember very few particulars, only blurs and glimpses — big signs welcoming you to Ohio or Kentucky, spiderwebbed overpasses through Atlanta, the flat, waterlogged expanse of central Florida. And then, once we arrived, small flashes of detail — miniature geckos in the yard, eating mangoes we didn’t get in Canada, and the constant sound of the TV playing the Weather Channel or running commercials for vacation homes in Fort Myers, Kissimmee, or, as it happened, St. Cloud. I’m not suggesting there’s any synchronicity at play here, the anecdote above is simply my overwrought way of saying that the feeling and sound of Saint Cloud hews closely to these memories, or maybe the idea of these memories, alternately blurred and sharp but always sunlit, focused on setting. Even prior to Saint Cloud, Crutchfield’s songs examined the relationship between location and feeling, how a place can be inextricably linked to an event or emotion or person. Waxahatchee Creek in particular is a recurring character in Crutchfield’s songs, acting as a cipher for the past, what used to be. Going all the way back to the closing track from American Weekend, “Noccalula” (itself a geographic reference to a waterfall in Alabama), a pattern emerges with Crutchfield creating an imagined future in four lines: “Four years, we’ll barely speak / and you’ve got a husband now / I have Waxahatchee Creek / and you used to come here with me.” Flash forward to the penultimate song on Saint Cloud, “Ruby Falls,” which is not only similar in title but also calls back to the eponymous waterway, this time as a final resting place: “I’ll sing a song at your funeral / laid in the Mississippi gulf / or back home at Waxahatchee Creek.” Place, while perhaps not a direct throughline on Saint Cloud, is a series of stepping stones that ground and situate the album.

Waxahatchee performing “Noccalula” at a house show in LA via YouTube

Elsewhere on Saint Cloud, Crutchfield introduces us to a full coterie of people, locales, and emotions. She has a keen eye for melding the physical and ethereal, something she points out plainly on the lilting “The Eye:” “I have a gift, I’ve been told, for seeing what’s there.” The song’s melody is relaxed, effortless, while the lyrics chronicle a storm (the ‘eye’ of a hurricane, I presume) both literal and literary — the adrenaline-inducing chase of a tornado (“run ourselves ragged town to town”) gives way to a whirlwind romance: “Oh, and you watch me like I’m a jet stream / a scientific cryptogram lit up behind the sunbeam.” The themes of memory and environment continue on “Arkadelphia,” the most devastating song on the album. Over an opening melody that sounds almost certainly not coincidentally nearly identical to Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” the verse delves deep into nostalgia, with references to flags, fireworks, and roadside stands “selling tomatoes for five bucks a bag.” Breaking down the song for Pitchfork, Crutchfield said the song was “about someone I have known for a very long time who struggled badly with addiction,” and the struggle of providing the necessary support to that person. But it also functions as a larger paean to searching for some semblance meaning, even when we know it’s just a façade. “We try to give it all meaning / glorify the grain of the wood / tell ourselves what’s beautiful and good,” she sings, trying desperately to mold reality into something less uncaring.

Noccalula Falls by Loc Giang via Unsplash

Even the most musically upbeat songs on Saint Cloud are turned inwards, always self-examining. On the rollicking “Hell,” Crutchfield reckons with her most destructive tendencies, ending the sky-scraping chorus with a candid warning: “I’ll put you through hell.” In contrast, “Can’t Do Much,” probably the liveliest track on the album (and the Barack Obama year-end playlist focus group pick), sees her evaluating her anxieties about being the person she thinks her romantic interest wants, opining over gentle guitar and banjo. The music on Saint Cloud is never flashy, but works in perfect lockstep with Crutchfield’s voice; handpicked guitar and blues piano and shimmery percussion providing a bed of greenery that evokes a crisp summer evening. The uniform perfection is one of the strongest aspects of the album; it works as a cohesive unit because there’s not a single track you would ever want to skip. With that being said, I feel that Saint Cloud shines the absolute brightest when it slows down just a touch. “Lilacs” perfectly entwines the natural and surreal, spinning a diaphanous dreamscape where codependence is the ultimate goal, where everything moves slower, where fulfillment is always just out of reach. The song is languid and humid, with enigmatic lyrics that mirror its haze. “Fire,” on the other hand, is crystalline, with Crutchfield’s voice sharp and layered and pushed as far to the fore as possible. I consider “Fire” to be the summit of an album with many other impossibly high peaks, and by extension the finest song of 2020. It is also a perfect synthesis of the two main themes of the album, self-examination and locus, a concrete travelogue where “I take off driving / past places, been tainted” and “West Memphis is on fire in the light of day” as well as a spiritual journey from lingering feelings of unhealthy attachment to a place of confidence and strength, one that seemingly took years. Starting with only a metallic keyboard, the song builds layers of vocals and instrumentation to mirror Crutchfield’s personal growth, like new buds on a tree in the springtime.

Saint Cloud closes with its title track. “St. Cloud” functions as a terminal not only for the album, but for Crutchfield’s temporal and spatial journeys. It’s about returning home in three dimensions, with its talk of “when you get back, on the M train” but also marks a conclusion in the fourth dimension, a final sigh of acceptance that understands the world will never be close to perfect, but at least you’ve found your place in it. Saint Cloud is the sound of an artist an the peak of her abilities and a focused ray of sunlight piercing through a dark year.

Music video for “Can’t Do Much” via Merge Records
Music video for “Fire” from via Merge Records

writin about music mostly | contact me alex.ml.toth@gmail.com

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