Cerulean Salt

(Don Giovanni Records; 2013)

By Maura McAndrew | 8 May 2013

Katie Crutchfield has a way with words. Lyrics that might seem overwrought in another context are, on a Waxahatchee record, just the right words at the right time. Crutchfield is young—only twenty-four—but her songs, though they dwell on the subjects most near and dear to those in their mid-twenties (loss of innocence, relationships, alcohol and drugs, and self-loathing), are wise, earnest, and desperately literary in the most engaging way. In the moment, the importance she gives these personal battles seems just right. Take this searing example, from “Misery Over Dispute”: “If I claim a sole regret / I loved only enough to accept / I’ll be spineless and sick in your eyes until / Death or the dragging of time.”

It is the great strength of Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield’s second album as Waxahatchee (the first being last year’s wonderfully lo-fi American Weekend), this stealthy way she has of wringing out the minutiae of twenty-something internal life. It’s well-worn indie rock territory, but Crutchfield’s light touch renders the accompanying emotions—confusion, grief, regret, and even happiness—totally valid. It helps that Cerulean Salt is one of those records that just effortlessly works, the songs coming together in such a brilliant way that it’s difficult to single just a few out for praise. From the simple opener “Hollow Bedroom” (“We are late / We are loud”) to the intense, Jeff Mangum-esque closer “You’re Damaged,” Crutchfield seems to get in a groove and ride it to the end—tired and depleted maybe, but catharsis achieved.

Crutchfield has been open about her ’90s alt-rock influences: Jenny Lewis, Cat Power, and Liz Phair, who in particular can be heard all over this record, but Crutchfield makes it her own. It’s all in the sound: the tone of her cracked, textured voice, from low and vibrato-less to high, whispering and edgy; the bluntly strummed bedroom electric guitar, the trembling, heartbeat bass sound (especially effective on “Brother Bryan” and “Swan Dive”). Cerulean Salt, however, has very little of Phair’s tough-girl bravado. Crutchfield, to her credit, stays firmly lost in her own thoughts, true to the perspective and voice that seemed to jump so candidly out of Waxahatchee’s debut American Weekend: the quiet observer, the morning-after neurotic, the girl who is at once part of the crowd and separate from it.

The pain of growing up and reflecting on childhood is the central theme of Cerulean Salt, and it is on this subject that Crutchfield produces some of her most arresting writing. “Lively,” a eulogy for a friendship lost to drugs, sums it up with “I’m longing for my youth / You were lively then too,” as does the powerful “You’re Damaged”: “You are 11, 1997 / God is implicit, your luck is consistent.” And “Swan Dive” may just be the highlight of the entire record, with its eloquent, sobering proclamation of “And I will grow out of all the / Empty bottles in my closet / And you’ll quit having dreams / About a swan dive to the hard asphalt.”

There are many, many other beautiful moments on Cerulean Salt—far too many to mention in this review. It’s a humble record, yet one with the timeless appeal to become a classic in league with the work of Waxahathee’s influences. Most impressive in its urgency, Cerulean Salt at times captures that feeling of waking up in the middle of the night with regrets suddenly weighty and stifling. It’s a record that broods, giving its listeners a chance to do so as well and, even for those of us out of our twenties, it’s nearly impossible to resist the opportunity.