How fitting that Katie Crutchfield would release her best album in the midst of an unprecedented (in our lifetimes at least) global storm, given that her last album was called, well, Out in the Storm. Of course, Crutchfield conceived and recorded Saint Cloud a long time before Covid-19 had ever been heard of, so it can’t lay claim to being a deliberate attempt to speak to our times (Crutchfield’s writing is too interiorised to lay such a claim anyway). But its laid-back groove, gorgeous folk and country style, and predominantly upbeat acoustic production all convincingly conjure up the image of an indie troubadour coming through the other side of a long-weathered personal storm into relative contentment. It’s the sequel that Out in the Storm was clearly calling for, as well as exactly the kind of imagery that we’re itching for these days.
Crutchfield’s triumph on Saint Cloud can’t help but represent in our minds our own desired future triumph over this vicious disease. And so, unintentionally, the album’s release has seen it imbued with an overwhelming sense of importance by critics, as if they were itching for a masterpiece to latch onto: Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian goes all-out and compares it to “peak Dylan”, an idea echoed by Jeremy D. Larson in Pitchfork who describes one track, “War”, as having a “rambling ’60s Dylan feel”.
It always saddens me to see intelligent young songwriters compared to Dylan. How many “next Dylans” can we have? Crutchfield doesn’t write at all like 60s Dylan: there’s no litany of literary and historical figures paraded through her lyrics, not all that much wordplay, hardly any pithy wisecracks or vicious putdowns. Instead, as mentioned before, there’s a deeply mined interiority, an obsession with romantic and personal travails expressed through obscure imagery such as “Oh, and you watch me like I’m a jet stream/A scientific cryptogram lit up behind the sunbeam” that puts her lyrics more in line with 70s Joni Mitchell than 60s Dylan.
Another way the songs on Saint Cloud tie in with 70s Mitchell, and especially Blue, are the repeated references to water and rivers. In a poignant line that contrasts with the song’s title (“Fire”), Crutchfield coos: “It’s not as if we cry a river, call it rain”. And on the very next song she observes how “Lilacs drank the water, marking the slow, slow/Slow passing of time”. Water is not only a universal symbol of rebirth and redemption, its mutable state – it can be frozen or boiled or consumed – is a potent metaphor for change.
That’s why such aquatic imagery is so important on Saint Cloud (what else are clouds made of?): it’s an album all about personal change. A useful breakdown of the album’s songs in a piece for Pitchfork reveals (for it’s not always clear in the sometimes inscrutable lyrics) that some of the major themes at play concern her “finding sobriety, settling down, and embracing her Southern roots”. In other words, changing, both personally and artistically.
The most uplifting moments on the album come when the changes in Crutchfield’s life lead her singing upwards to a sense of euphoria. This happens at the end of the first track, “Oxbow”, which climaxes with a repeated chanting of “I want it all”. The next track, the deeply catchy “Can’t Do Much”, makes it much clearer exactly what it is she wants: “I want you/All the time”. But in both cases, her voice soars in seeming joy at the unleashing of her desires, and it creates a true rush of affection and reciprocal joy in the attentive listener.
Listening to Saint Cloud really is full of deep pleasures such as these. It’s her most consistently engaging album, with a rustic charm delivered by her sharp songwriting and choice of backup band, which consists of a strong cohort of experienced country-rockers. At first the relaxed tempos and rather stiff drumming can drag the listener away from full immersion, but gradually you will start to become attuned to how these factors actually contribute to the overall aesthetic beauty rather than distract from it. The album’s songs pass by like a summer’s stroll, so that it would feel wrong to speed it up or inject a little too much adrenaline into proceedings. Simply slowing down the pace and allowing the listener to take it all in works a charm because of the sheer quality of the music on display: the lilting electric guitar lines, the prominently placed and sunny (yet not idle) acoustic strumming, the melismatic contours of Crutchfield’s own rich voice. Crutchfield references Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” on “Arkadelphia”, but musically this album more closely resembles the warm acoustic glow of Comes a Time (or perhaps Bob Dylan’s New Morning, if we have to mention Dylan).
My one gripe with this terrific album is that there’s no truly great song in the mix. There’s not a bad one in sight, but there’s also no classic in the lineup to lift the thing up into masterpiece territory. That leaves Saint Cloud as most likely being an experience you’ll cherish every single time that you listen to it, but perhaps won’t regularly recall days or even hours after hearing it.
Still, Saint Cloud leaves one thirsty to hear what Crutchfield will come up with next, on the other side of this storm.