There’s a little something irritating, like lemon in a split cuticle, when you listen to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”—the clawing frustration of an unsolved mystery from when all the clues are right there in front of you. Yet, the answer remains in its annoying cove in Simon’s brain, snickering at us as we try to figure out...“Who’s so vain?”
We’ve been spoiled with other artists, who’ve satiated our hunger for gossip and given away the subjects of their songs. It’s clear that when we listen to Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River,” Taylor Swift’s “Dear John” and pretty much the entirety of Beyonce’s Lemonade that we’re getting songs about Britney Spears, John Mayer and Jay Z.
Katie Crutchfield isn’t naming names. But, by writing a breakup record about the dissolution of a “romantic and professional” relationship, she’s opened herself up to a lot of guesses about who the music is about. She’s asked the same question in every interview, and one writer even published the name of who they thought the ex-partner was. “People are trying to figure out every little detail. It just feels weird and invasive,” Crutchfield says, calling from Philadelphia.
“As soon as you start talking about something like that in an interview, it takes away from what I made,” she says. “It trivializes things.”
Out in the Storm is Crutchfield’s fourth album as Waxahatchee, the name she took from the Alabama creek by her childhood home in 2010. It’s her second LP with Merge Records and a drastic change in sound from her early bedroom lo-fi recordings of her debut, American Weekend. Crutchfield has focused the fuzziness of her earlier work with crisper production, sometimes forgetting about her acoustic guitar altogether and opting for angry, throbbing synths and sharp hits of a snare. While she’s switched up the sound, the same brutally honest storytelling stands tall—each album like chapters in a journal.
“With all my records, I look at it like documentation of a version of myself at a specific moment,” Crutchfield says. “Like, my old records, I definitely see how I’ve progressed as a person. And I’m glad they’re documented. I don’t really recognize that person anymore, but I’m glad that that’s all down.”
Within Out in the Storm, there’s chapters too—all representing the waxing and waning phases of the end of a toxic relationship. There’s the failing, the adamant arguing, the helplessness, the sleep deprivation, the depression—even the feel-good moments. In the album’s first track, “Never Been Wrong,” Crutchfield sets the tone, knowing she has to leave while still figuring out how to. “I spend all my time learning how to defeat / you at your own game / It’s embarrassing,” she sings amid the chaos of crashing cymbals and grungy guitars. It’s a song that Pitchfork called a “whiny indie rock classic,” which has Crutchfield trying to get their friend group to take her side in the breakup.
“You don’t want to make people chose sides,” Crutchfield says about her friends during the breakup. “But there’s also that inherent thing, that inherent emotionally underdeveloped part of everyone that wants to do that. ‘Guys, everyone’s hearing all these things I’m saying. Everybody sees this in this person. Why aren’t we all walking away from this?’”
That game, although she’s embarrassed to be playing it, moves its pawns throughout the rest of the record.
Each song feels as if she’s in an argument, directly speaking to “you,” the accused, in the lyrics. But the lyrics were not necessarily written in the heat of a fight. Instead, Crutchfield took some time in between the breakup and the recording process to reflect. Because of that, her poetry hits harder with self-awareness and a cleverness that might not have been found if she scribbled lyrics furiously after a feud. “You went back in time today, expecting me to do the same,” she sings on “No Question,” delivering a more rounded view of the situation rather than her ex-partner’s blinded one. It’s lyrics like these that have you reflecting on similar moments in your own past relationships—stuff you might not have noticed when you were buried deep within them.
Each line invites you to dwell on it. On the phone, it feels almost like cheating hearing her explain different lyrics. She dissects “Sparks Fly,” one of the more hopeful tracks on the album, with the line, “I see myself through my sister’s eyes.” (Crutchfield started making music with her sister, Allison, as P.S. Eliot in 2007 before they launched their solo careers. Allison tours with Waxahatchee.)
“When you’re in a sort of codependent or when you’re immersed in a romantic relationship, you often fulfill a role,” she says. “You’re often seeing yourself through your partner’s eyes. You’re seeing yourself from their perspective. I’ve been in situation as where I didn’t like that person that I was seeing, that person who I had become. [In ‘Sparks Fly,’] I’m in Berlin, I’m away from the situation, sort of being out and having a really great night and it’s late and we’re laughing and having the best time. She sees me as this happy, fun person.”
On “A Little More,” she hides a bleak pocket of depression within a delicate acoustic ditty. “I live a little more / I die a little more,” she sings in a sweet soprano, recreating the gray area of her relationship when she felt stuck and unloved. The whole song sounds like a trick to get you to listen to morbid lyrics. “My favorite thing on earth is a lyrically dark song that sounds sweet or sounds super poppy,” Crutchfield says. The whole album takes sonic twists like that, delving into punk, pop, rock and yes, even the singer-songwriter vibe of Carly Simon.
Of course, the other frustrating part about Simon’s “You’re So Vain” is that we ALL know who the song is about. You know, that irksome dude who always turns the conversation to himself and all his eye-opening travel experiences and the restaurants he’s eaten at and the outfits he wears. The guy who gives you acid reflux because he thinks everybody is interested in him. The guy who thinks every song is about him. We all know that person.
And even though we may never know who Crutchfield wrote about on Out in the Storm (it really is none of our business), we’ve always known. We’ve all been manipulated in some way. We’ve all taken our time wandering out of the maze of a relationship. We’ve all battled those embarrassing dreams about our ex that put us in retrograde. We’ve all had someone with a inexplicable hold on us.
“The big thing for me with this record is that I think that the situation I’m describing, the songs that I wrote, are pretty relatable to many people,” Crutchfield says. “I just want to put them in the world and have people sort of relate to them.”
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