Waxahatchee’s ‘Saint Cloud’ Confronts Sobriety And Recovery With Vivid Empathy

This essay appears as part of the 2020 Uproxx Music Critics Poll.

Katie Crutchfield grew up in Alabama and lives in Kansas City, but the story behind Saint Cloud, her fifth and best album as Waxahatchee, begins in Barcelona. That’s where Crutchfield decided to get sober, right in the middle of touring her previous album, 2017’s Out In The Storm.

It’s a story Crutchfield told countless times this year while promoting Saint Cloud, a story that has become intertwined with the record’s surrounding narrative of recent sobriety. “I had gone back and forth a lot about my substance issues,” Crutchfield told Pitchfork last spring, “and I woke up one day and said, ‘I’m done with this forever.’ I went and got my own hotel room in Barcelona and started to work on music. I remember thinking, ‘This is the beginning of a new chapter of my life.’”

Saint Cloud, the resulting album, does sound like a new beginning. It’s an airily beautiful album, and an endlessly giving one, full of open spaces and moments of exhilarating simplicity. Crutchfield chose to paper over the roiling angst of Out In The Storm with open-hearted Americana inspired by Lucinda Williams, but she couldn’t have known she was delivering a beacon of comfort and empathy at a moment of immense, world-historic catastrophe. Saint Cloud became counterprogramming in a year of destabilization. Musically, the album, with its ringing major chords and unfussy arrangements, feels like a direct antithesis of the other hugely acclaimed singer-songwriter album from last spring, Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters. There are no cacophonies of makeshift percussion or howling dogs. Just songs.

And yes, it’s a recovery album. Or maybe Saint Cloud isn’t so much an album about sobriety as an album that lives in the quiet space of clarity and gratitude that getting sober can bring. If I described it as an “early thirties” album, would you know what I mean? That’s not a diss; I mean it reminds me of records like R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People or Kate Bush’s The Red Shoes, records where you can hear a great songwriter basking in some accrued wisdom on the other side of their 20s, reflecting on losses—almost, in a way, whispering secrets back to their younger, dumber self. (As Crutchfield sings on “Fire”: “Tomorrow could feel like 100 years later / I’m wiser and slow and attuned.”)

On Saint Cloud, much of that accrued wisdom involves addiction and codependency — the record’s two major themes, in Crutchfield’s view. She flits between specificity and abstraction, confronting both her own struggles with alcoholism and the struggles of friends both living and dead. On “Oxbow,” she offers a poetic sketch of that Barcelona awakening, over bright, steady piano arpeggios that fill up the track like morning light. “Hell” goes full acoustic twang, as Crutchfield sings about the painful self-examination that recovery involves, when your worst traits are on full display: “Swallow my pride, it’s mine to quell / I’ll put you through hell, I’ll put you through hell.”

Yet the record’s emotional peak, “Arkadelphia” and “Ruby Falls,” hinges on stories involving outside characters. On the latter song, she envisions herself singing at the funeral of an old friend who died of a drug overdose. The former is a gutting and vivid slice of storytelling; over a frayed, rolling acoustic melody, Crutchfield flits between third- and first-person, singing about a different friend who’s struggled with addiction. In one of the most piercing bits of reflection, Crutchfield imagines how her own story could end if she doesn’t get clean: “If I burn out like a light bulb / They’ll say she wasn’t meant for that life / They’ll put it all in a capsule / And save it for a dark night.”

It’s a remarkable lyric, and one that doesn’t need to get specific to invoke countless lost greats whose names are mentioned with those sad headshakes.

Crutchfield’s willingness to speak and write plainly about her experiences with alcoholism is invaluable to fans coping with their own addictions in private. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Saint Cloud feels like the culmination of a recent trend of great songwriters — particularly within the indie-rock realm — confronting sobriety and recovery directly in their songwriting.

Two years ago, the Canadian punk band Dilly Dally released one of the best songs in this category: “Sober Motel,” a raw, howling ode to sobriety that singer Katie Monks wrote for a bandmate dealing with addiction while immersed in a touring culture that romanticizes it. The song raises a middle finger at that culture: “Fuck the notion / That you should be higher / I’ve been lost in a fog for forever,” Monks sings in her exhilarating, charred voice.

A year later, indie-rock songwriter Melina Duterte, better known as Jay Som, approached the same theme from a softer angle on “Get Well,” an alt-country gem from her 2019 album Anak Ko. The song is a plaintive ode to an alcoholic friend or acquaintance: “How do you find peace with a drink in your hand?”

In an interview that year with Uproxx, Duterte spoke plainly about her own decision to quit drinking after some months of heavy binge-drinking following her move to L.A. “You go to shows, and instead of giving you food or money, they give you beers,” Duterte said. “When you mix that with touring, it’s extremely chaotic. I think I just wanted to feel more like myself.”

This new pantheon of songs and records centered around the once-taboo subject of sobriety helps provide comfort and meaning to music fans who are in recovery. Such songs implicitly confront how the touring life (well, when touring existed) encourages alcohol abuse. They also form a stark contrast with a certain indie-rock culture of yesteryear — remember when bands like Guided By Voices or The Libertines made drug- and booze-fueled decadence look cool as hell? By 2020, a range of artists across genres and generations were opening up about their own recent or semi-recent sobriety: Fiona Apple, Thundercat (who quit drinking not long after the 2018 death of Mac Miller), Miley Cyrus (who recently acknowledged relapsing during the pandemic).

Yet in recent years, no indie-rock legend has been more open and forthright about his recovery story than Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame. In his 2018 memoir, Tweedy wrote extensively — and in frank detail — about his early-2000s addiction to painkillers and subsequent stint in rehab. (At his lowest moment, he stole his mother-in-law’s morphine while she was sick with cancer.)

When I interviewed Tweedy for a Newsweek story that year, he explained that the desire to share his recovery story in order to help others was one of the main reasons he wrote the memoir. “The fact that I’ve gone through rehab,” Tweedy said, “and had some pretty public struggles with depression and opioids — I feel like that’s a good reason to share your story.”

Tweedy’s own recovery album was Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, a suspiciously calm comedown LP whose track titles — “Please Be Patient with Me,” “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)” — sometimes resemble pleas for understanding. The album was critically slammed for its rootsy, soft-rock sheen. By the time Tweedy’s memoir came out a decade later, the songwriter was reflecting on his addiction story in the lyrics of his 2018 solo album Warm. “Bombs Above” references sage advice he received in rehab, while “Having Been Is No Way to Be” obliquely bites back at fans who wish he’d develop a drug habit again so he could make records that sound like A Ghost Is Born: “But they’re not my friends / And if I was dead / What difference would it ever make to them?” Tweedy sings.

For a recovery album to be as good as Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud feels like an act of defiance. It’s a quiet rebellion against that noxious trope that songwriters must be tortured to write, that great art can only emerge from self-destructive habits and psychological torment. Talking to Uproxx last spring, Crutchfield acknowledged romanticizing that myth — and the substance abuse that often accompanies it — while making her earlier records. Saint Cloud is a clean break, a balm to anyone who worries that getting sober or entering treatment will flatten their own creativity.

“I think making this record was also partially me proving to myself, and being really scared that I would fail, that I can be mentally, physically healthy and make my best album,” Crutchfield said. “To prove to myself that like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to be a complete fucking mess to make great music.’”