Waxahatchee, “Tigers Blood”

From lyrics, to vocals, to collaborations, Katie Crutchfield continues to outdo herself in almost every facet of her alt-country compositions on her fully confident sixth album.

Waxahatchee, Tigers Blood

From lyrics, to vocals, to collaborations, Katie Crutchfield continues to outdo herself in almost every facet of her alt-country compositions on her fully confident sixth album.

Words: Sean Fennell

March 21, 2024

Tigers Blood

Katie Crutchfield knows how to open a record. She always has. Even before becoming one of the hottest songwriters among the alt-country revival, gracing magazine covers and playing shows with Shania Twain and Lucinda Williams, she’s always largely been uninterested in the kind of throat-clearing you hear on a typical first track. Her albums as Waxahatchee are direct in their intentions—from the pristine confidence of Saint Cloud’s “Oxbow,” to the slowcore exposure of Ivy Tripp’s “Breathless,” to the driven transience of Out in the Storm’s “Never Been Wrong,” Crutchfield has always had a way of telling us exactly what she’s after and ushering us to join the pursuit. 

Her latest, Tigers Blood, begins as starkly as her first-ever album opener, the barren and understated “Catfish,” but looks toward a landscape much different than the one she surveyed 12 years ago on American Weekend. “I pick you up inside a hopeless prayer, I see you beholding to nothing,” she recites in the opening lines of “3 Sisters,” nothing but minimal piano and guitar framing a raw-nerve of an introduction. Crutchfield’s vocal talents have never been in question, but she might as well be showing off here, hovering higher and digging deeper than ever before. When the wave eventually breaks and Crutchfield is joined by the full array of her backing band, it feels like both an invitation and a warning. You’re welcome to come along, but good luck escaping unscathed.

That kind of gravitational pull extends to Crutchfield as an artist, as well. After implementing the underrated Michigan indie-rockers Bonny Doon as her backing band on Saint Cloud, Crutchfield and her producing partner Brad Cook turned to similarly well-seasoned musicians this time around, most notably Spencer Tweedy on drums and Jake Lenderman on guitar and a substantial amount of backing vocals. The collaboration with the latter is almost too perfect—alt-country, however you might define it, is undeniably having a moment, and there are perhaps no albums of this past five years that provide the two distinct blueprints for excellence within the genre better than Saint Cloud and Lenderman’s Boat Songs. To combine these forces is to leave almost nothing left on the bone for anyone else, and it’s hard to ignore the impact Lenderman’s aching harmonies and sneering guitar solo had in that regard on the album’s lead single “Right Back to It.” 

Still, even a musician as idiosyncratic and charming as Lenderman pales in comparison to what Crutchfield is doing throughout Tigers Blood. The distinctions may be subtle, but she continues to outdo herself in almost every facet on the album. Lyrically, Waxahatchee has never been a project of straightforward storytelling, and though that holds true here, there’s something stickier about the evocations being made throughout. We may not know precisely who is being asked, “Am I your moat, or your drawbridge?” or what it is to be reticent of one “blunter than a bullseye begging for peace of mind,” but Crutchfield herself seems surer than ever before, which has a way of letting each line land a little harder. Elsewhere, as on “Lone Star Lake,” we’re given a more precise view at the domestic contentment and relative serenity that’s characterized this new phase of Waxahatchee, a view which dovetails with other more obvious aspects of this record. 

Even in the days of American Weekend’s scuzzed-up home production, Crutchfield’s vocal talents were evident, but years of touring and recording have given her complete control of her voice in all its gritty and emotive glory. She seems to be aware of this, too. The confidence it takes to let your band recede so far into the background, as she does on songs like “3 Sisters” and “365,” is one that comes only with time. She’s never been one to hide behind production, but the exposure here only heightens the effect. So, too, does her increasingly clever way with phrasing. She can take a relatively straightforward, sun-drenched country-folk tune like “Crimes of the Heart” and slither around it like a snake in the grass. To read the lyric sheet for this record is to get less than half the story, her rubberband delivery stretching and snapping in perfect kinship with the steady thrum of her band, who are always keenly aware of their place in the equation. 

It’s these and a million other small moments which take Tigers Blood to heights exceeding even those of Saint Cloud, itself a near-perfect record. But even these attempts to break this record down to its parts is an attempt to intellectualize an album I love uncritically. There have been more than a few times over the past few weeks when I nearly had to physically restrain myself from running through its 12 songs again for fear of wearing away its charms. More often than not I was unsuccessful, and yet there’s been nothing diminishing about the returns. To put it simply, Tigers Blood is an instant classic, from open to close.