Despite a tendency to allow songs and albums to demarcate periods in my life, I’ve found that Waxahatchee’s fourth album evades this contract. Any such associations I might filter through the 10-track album — a person, a relationship, an emotional season — are absent. I’ve come to believe that this is because Out in the Storm, uniquely and brilliantly, evades a sole moment. The relationship that songwriter Katie Crutchfield surveys is one available only at a distant retrospect — that is, once one has stepped far, far back from the ring of a relationship and can trace the life cycle of their love carefully, almost scientifically. Falling in love with Crutchfield’s album means falling in love with her audit of infatuation from start to finish. Out in the Storm throws punches at early love and laps at the feet of breakups; it screams with hatred and stomps out a rhythm to insecurity. It’s a broad and timeless narrative, one which, rather than pairing with a sole person or emotion, I appreciate for its amalgamation of so many emotions that seem both greatly distant and staggeringly familiar.
Hovering over a sudden outbreak of violent electric guitar, Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee opens her fourth album, Out in the Storm, with a taste of both sloppy adoration and fear in her mouth. There’s an air of determination and aggression to the track: “I spend all my time learning how to defeat / you at your own game, it’s embarrassing,” Crutchfield sings in “Never Been Wrong.” “I love being right, especially with you.” It’s Crutchfield’s confident acknowledgement of a thrilling roulette game of love, one where she’s at her partner’s mercy but is up for the fight. It’s comparable to Sia’s “Fair Game,” in which the Australian singer likens her relationships to a game, one where she wants the tables, for once, to be leveled. Waxahatchee, on the other hand, seems OK with the presence of disparity. “I saw you as a big fish / I saw you as a conquest,” she later confesses. Unlike Sia’s sorrowful longing, Crutchfield’s thrilled acceptance of these conditions on her opening track raises the stakes for the rest of the album. And we’re eager with her, anticipating what turmoil will transpire.
What separates the track from Sia’s cry for a fair game, too, is the fear that “Never Been Wrong” also drizzles over its harsh instrumentals: “Everyone / will hear me complain / Everyone / will pity my name.” Beneath the gritty willingness to crouch down over the board and move a pawn, there’s a moment of hesitation. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
The rest of Out in the Storm, as it turns out, pans out a high-speed synopsis of the game Crutchfield lays bare in her opening track. In “Sparks Fly” she’s in the thick of love; in “Brass Beam” she’s fighting back against her partner’s narcissism and unsteadiness. “8 Ball” confesses toxicity and “No Question” chronicles anger so fervently that it’s as if you’re a lover, a thrown champagne glass having just missed your head. The album becomes a roadmap of a relationship with distinct checkpoints. At the same time, these points in the narrative don’t feel locked into their respective slots on the tracklist — at times, Crutchfield’s writing feels true and nonspecific enough that these checkpoints could be rearranged to puzzle together a new relationship.
A softened punk sound pervades Out in the Storm, a noise distinct from both the band’s lo-fi precedent and piano-ballad follow-up album. It’s as if Bikini Kill were dampened or, heading the opposite direction, if Sharon Van Etten’s vocals were torn up and pasted back together. Each track centers on an organic thrash of drums that amplifies Waxahatchee, even when things feel sobering and despondent. With it, there’s an overpowering electric guitar. The album has another noticeable consistency, though, and one that goes almost unnoticed without tender listening: Just about every line is insulated with a harmony from Crutchfield’s sister, cut and laid over the original vocals. It’s not just for emphasis; it is, literally, nearly every line. The padding of these harmonies softens the punkish aura of the album. It renders it aggressive but never overwhelming. Where the album already seems cohesive lyrically, such tactical blankets link Crutchfield’s confessions together musically, too.
The album reaches its creative and lyrical summit with “Sparks Fly,” a track in which Crutchfield watches herself fall in love through her sister’s eyes. Like a practiced poet, Crutchfield trusts her audience. The terms she offers are never specific or explained; she knows we’ll mold the rest of the narrative for ourselves.“Sparks fly / sparks fly,” she repeats throatily throughout the song. “I’m raw like wire / electrified.” It’s a deliriously genius track that admits the indelible hunger that love calls forth. Perhaps the most striking line of the album is a simple but heavy concession: “I’m a live wire / finally.” There is a gush to the lyric, and though Crutchfield sings it in an even register, one might sense a shake hidden behind her voice on “finally” — instrumentals pause for the briefest moment. It’s a tone monitored carefully to prevent thrill from leaking through. It’s a descent into infatuation: finally, wonderfully.
Bits like “Sparks Fly” showcase, too, the album’s truth-through-storytelling practice, a feat like that accomplished in the narratives that percolate Big Thief’s 2016 Masterpiece. Songs lay out unassuming landscapes and actions that, though briefly mentioned, make the album’s experiences both personal and accessible. “We sat in the hot summer twilight / radio loud and the brim bite / the Coosa water is choppy and wild / I jumped abruptly, unreconciled.” Crutchfield similarly understands the capacity of small, tangible things — the way light falls in a stranger’s bedroom, say — to represent something bulky and unwieldy. She capitalizes on this. These objects and details are in the periphery, perhaps insignificant, long before they are injected into the song. Crutchfield’s strength is fishing them from these spaces and noticing the power they can possess in recalling a long-buried intimacy.
“Fade,” the album’s conclusion, serves as a delicate outro. The intensity of prior tracks is pulled out from under Crutchfield, who sings flatly over acoustic strums. “You wring me out / I tell the truth,” she sings. “I kissed you goodbye / and hid for the rest of your life.” It’s a track that feels like closing a book, just-finished, slowly. It’s the exit from the storm. It should be despairing, and Crutchfield’s harmonies, spread across the song thin like butter, make it sound so. But there is a sense of acceptance, a breathy hope peeking through the nostalgia. “I first saw you through childish eyes / I was in love with a song,” the lyrics admit — though not necessarily in defeat. Rather, for the conclusion, she distances herself from the relationship: “I stayed out of your way.” The guitar strums fall into a rhythm and slow. The game ended, Waxahatchee tells us, and guitar reverberations overtake the track. But there is a sense, having lingered with Crutchfield through the surefire center of her album, that there will be another round. Another player, surely, will enter the arena. Until then, there is little choice but to revel in the searing, expansive chronicle of the game already played.