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Katie Crutchfield delivers the first words of “3 Sisters,” the first song on Waxahatchee’s sixth album, in a tentative hush, the sort that might precede either the very best or very worst number at your local talent show. “I make a living crying/ It ain’t fair and not budging,” she sings, and a bit later, “All my life I’ve been running from what you want.” She is unfailingly earnest, but her words carry a piercing wit and candor. Her delivery sounds both idiosyncratic and effortless, burrowing into turns of phrase and emphasizing unexpected syllables in ways at once subtle and utterly revelatory. In the first moments of this luminous album’s first song, it’s clear she’s reached a new level as a songwriter and performer.

 “Tigers Blood,” recorded with longtime producer Brad Cook, finds Crutchfield toying with some fresh components, such as the understated but persistent presence of MJ Lenderman (who also plays with Wednesday), another newly minted indie rock titan who provides guitar work and backing vocals throughout, most prominently on the gorgeous “Right Back to It.” But minor deviations aside, “Tigers Blood” functions as a seamless extension and advancement of the aesthetic Crutchfield perfected on “Saint Cloud”, her Americana masterpiece that stands as one of the few artifacts worth revisiting from March 2020.

That album’s sound was so fully realized, such a natural fit for Crutchfield, that it’s easy to forget that it was a sly, unexpected reinvention, a radiant split from the charming scrappiness of her early records. “Saint Cloud” was recorded, importantly, after she got sober in 2018. Both on that album and this one, Crutchfield’s seems lighter and more composed, but she’s hardly relentlessly sunny — “My life’s been mapped out to a T but I’m always a little lost,” she sings on “Lone Star Lake,” a song that imagines a serene getaway for its protagonists before unpacking their respective shortcomings. And even in her sobriety, Crutchfield is still reckoning with the looming specter of addiction, as she does on the stunning, spare “365” (originally written for Wynonna Judd).

“Right Back to It”, the album’s first single and perhaps its apex, is indicative of the way Crutchfield laces beautiful melodies and arrangements with complex wrinkles. The verses chronicle a couple’s low points (“If I swerve in and out of my lane, burning up an old flame, turn a jealous eye”) but only as outliers in a relationship with proven longevity: “I’ve been yours for so long, we come right back to it.” That dynamic underlies much of “Tigers Blood”: Crutchfield isn’t brushing off life’s most daunting challenges, she’s just figured out how to keep her head clear as she manages them. “It fills me with dread, but I’ve learned to ignore the smell of dust that creeps up through the cracks in the floor,” she sings on the title track, reflecting a hard-earned peace with the world as it is.



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