The fifth album from Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee has been widely praised. The basis for this praise has often been her adoption of more elements of Americana and particularly her new found love for Lucinda Williams’ ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’. As ‘Car Wheels…‘ has had 22 years to establish itself as a classic of the genre, is it presumptuous of an album out for a week or so to be bracketed with it?
This is Crutchfield’s first album since she gave up drinking. She told Rolling Stone that she had difficulty writing while sober. If that is so then the struggle was mostly worth it as there are flashes of brilliance in the words. Like the opening couplet of ‘Can’t Do Much’, “We will coalesce our heaven and hell. My eyes roll around like dice on the felt.” The climax of ‘The Eye’, however, is the line “A scientific cryptogram lit up behind a jet stream”, which would have sounded more at home on a Yes album and tips the song from potentially great to overly verbose.
The music, produced by Brad Cook who has also worked with Hiss Golden Messenger and Bon Iver, is where the gaps really start to show. It is rather too smooth and polished, Americana with the creases ironed out, those same creases that make the Lucinda Williams album she loves great. The blandness of much of the music, mainly by Detroit folk-rock band Bonny Doon, detracts from, rather than enhances, the words in many cases.
It takes several listens to get beneath the skin of songs like ‘Ruby Falls‘, musically a near cousin of Gillian Welch’s ‘Look At Miss Ohio’, to find the tale of a relationship gone wrong. “Real love don’t follow a straight line. It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine”. The Guardian’s reviewer described ‘Saint Cloud’ as “an artefact of American song that measures up to Dylan at his peak”. Heaping that sort of baggage on an album builds up a weight of expectation that is impossible to fulfill. It takes more than a cover featuring an old Ford pickup and the occasional mandolin to make an Americana album.
There will be better albums this year. Crutchfield will probably make better albums when the music catches up with the best of her lyrics. It is doubtful that in 2042 we will still be comparing this to ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’. She aimed for greatness but this time it was just out of reach.