Held like a penny I found

Held like a penny I found

I foolishly want milestones to mean something, less out of desperation and more from a desire for days and landmarks to mean more than they are capable of. Values I placed on monuments that live only as washed out images in the rearview, all half-remembered and fading out of view. Holding onto the languishing tendrils of the past in some misguided quest to make nothing mean more than it is capable of.

On Sunday in the late hours of the morning I was 5 years sober.

Passively, for days on end, I wondered how it would feel to hit the 5 year mark and when it came, it felt like so much nothing.

I was apprehensive about Waxahatchee's new record, Tigers Blood, for a lot of reasons but mainly because Saint Cloud hit me perfectly in all of my hidden tender parts. I was apprehensive because what if this doesn’t feel the same, what if the highs don’t feel atmospheric, what if the lows don’t crush me just right?

It felt nice to be surprised when Saint Cloud was first announced and it had a little bit of something new; country music, Americana, the sound of a porch and the whisper of the wind on the grass of the plains. Indie rock gone roots, an axe to a patch cable. A single released, and then another, and I wondered how an album could live up the promise of a song. Surely it would fall back into old habits eventually.

I’m not even sure what I was expecting at the 5 year mark of my sobriety, as if the hour would hit and the minute would tick up to the exact moment of anniversary and something in the heavens would open, just a crack, to shine a light at the feet of my hard-won grace. But a milestone like this isn’t cause for celebration in the traditional sense. I haven’t really done or achieved anything. What I have done, for the last 5 years, is commit to stop finding excuses for my own behaviour, learned to accept the flaws and failures of the past as words on the page that can’t be erased, learned how to live with the days we can’t change. Opened negotiations to peace with the past.

I think a lot of people want to sell authenticity, and this has always been true but it feels especially naked right now. There are big pop stars for whom marketability relies on their ability to spin yarn about the ferocious truth of their raw and real lives. In a variety of genres, we have bought and sold colour swatches of blue collars, sold the idea of the working class, lives lived down home in backwoods, the poor, sad, sick, and depressed filtered into an algorithm to edge just close enough to real you can almost feel the danger in its promise.

It’s an easy affectation that someone puts on, this kind of Americana flavoured water desperate to feel authentic, like sandpaper in your hands that more often than not ends up feeling like worn close to flat. I sometimes think that earnestness and emotional honesty has been co-opted by capitalism desperate for something new to sell, and it makes it harder than ever to feel anything. We want to buy the lives of real and authentic people, those tender hearts writing earworms and bangers that fit neatly into an algorithm with all of the similarly crisp sounding heartfelt earworms and bangers.

I miss the sound of the wind in a song, and the way the sun feels like white noise when the day gets hot enough. The way a memory feels when it crosses your neural pathways on its way back home. The way we tell stories about the days behind us, wistfully remembering the transcendent pain and the crushing beauty of it all. The connection to our own half-remembered backstory and the stories we hold onto, to share around cluttered tables when the sun starts to set.

I’ve been thinking about the places I come from a lot, recently more with the writing of books that dwell on the past, but looking forward as well in preparation for a quick trip coming up in April to celebrate my dads 70th birthday. I made a lot of mistakes when I drank, and I drank for a very long time and that’s a long life of mistakes to have written in the pages of your life that you can’t erase, try as you might.

Tigers Blood is a record written in the wake of Katie Crutchfield's own sobriety. I read a lot about it in interviews, profiles and reviews. Sobriety like an animal in a rundown zoo. Beautiful and proud but lonely and something a little sad. Sobriety has been something I’ve been bristling with lately as a topic of public consumption, a conversation in danger of flattening as the wellness industry swoops in to turn temperance and the avoidance of alcohol into something that fixes you. Sobriety as a great pious and virtuous task.

For me, and I speak always and forever only for myself here, sobriety has been less about fixing me. I feel the same way about transition, and that is a longer story too, that so often the idea is that these things will fix you. Heal you. Tape and bandages over the wounds that once bled us dry. But that’s not real either, it’s just a truth we can sell.

I have disassociated longer than I have felt tethered to my own self. Feeling at home in my skin and bones is something I desired more as I got older, and it was sobriety and transition that granted me the grace of this connection. I have never wanted to feel healed, or fixed, by the actions I have taken as an adult. I have just been motivated by the desire to feel everything in a way that feels real, the way I imagine other people always have.

This is where the real truth comes from, this is the grit of the sandpaper. How much does the feeling of the texture of days gone feel like it creates some kind of lasting friction on the skin. Saint Cloud had done this for me, a record I listened to a lot in the early days of the pandemic when Bowie and I would go on slow walks through the park, avoided getting too close to people and wistfully thought about the grass that used to grow beneath my feet that felt so long gone now.

My fear was always that nothing would ever feel as good as crying in the park listening to the title track of a record that felt so perfect.

I wonder if the title track is the thesis. I used to hold onto this idea that the thesis is the first song on a record that is intentionally sequences to tell a story. I think in essays, which is always funny to someone who failed out of school. “St Cloud”, the title track arriving at the end was a cap to the chapter, a record that often feels like someone in deep conversation with themself. Seeking this kind of understanding, learning to patch together cables long severed by the errant swinging of a sharp blade. Somber and beautiful, with Crutchfield singing a little do do do, do do doo doo as if its a hymn half-recalled hummed to herself as she moved slowly through the end of the day.

There’s something beautiful in the starkness of something like this, when you can feel the air and the sky behind a song, feel the heat of the day as it is swallowed by the moon.

Tigers Blood takes the spirit outside the shell of a body. If Saint Cloud Was Crutchfield as Waxahatchee in conversation with herself, then Tigers Blood is her sharing her pages now that she is ready to read aloud. There’s something familiar in this, something that feels like stories told by someone who has made peace with their memories.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the record at first. The day I turned 5 years sober I walked down to the record store and grabbed the last copy off the shelf. The clerk asked me about my tattoos, the switchblade I have on my left hand paired with a butterfly on my right. If there’s advice I have for anyone transitioning after 7 or so years in this life it’s that the way men will talk to you about your tattoos will change. He reached his hand out close to touch them and asked what they mean. I said they mean I used to have a drinking problem and poor impulse control.

I walked home, listened to the record first in my AirPods and then on the stereo and felt it warmly wash over us in the house as Lysh baked cookies, I made a pot of coffee and then another. It felt nice, and I didn’t listen hard enough to feel anything. It felt like the sun coming in the windows. I was 5 years sober now, and it felt like nothing. Just our home and the heat of the sun and the whirring of a old turntable motor with a worn belt.

Yesterday I took Bowie for a walk up to the park, the snow that fell during a recent flash storm was starting to melt and we went to explore the mud and the things buried in the dirt. Put on “Tigers Blood”, the title track and the thesis, or maybe the closing of a chapter.

The song opens with a guitar strummed exactly right; impeccably imperfect, careful and casual. A tool to deliver a promise, one never meant to be crisp and clean, always meant to be well worn and to slip a little here and there. A drum-kit keeps time, mandolins and strings and rhythm turn a simple backdrop into a diorama.

What I like in Crutchfield’s voice is that in all the truth I have ever bought, in hers it feels real. Shaky at times, the way the truth often does. Her shift from indie rock into this kind of new Americana (or alt-country whatever genre you want to affix if you obsess about this kind of thing) makes sense as you hear the waves of her voice. They sound like the memory of someone you have always known, a voice that sounds like someone telling stories as they swing passively on a chair tethered by rope to an old tree, spinning in a low breeze. It feels connected to itself, at peace with the stories it has and the memory of the things written in indelible ink.

I walk and listen and I can imagine hearing the dissonant hum of cicada’s overhead somewhere, even though they have not arrived yet. A song that feels like a memory yet to be born. MJ Lenderman, of Wednesday, providing strings and backup vocals. She sings of Tigers Blood stained on teeth, which I discover is a flavour of shaved ice you can buy in Texas that Wikipedia is quick to tell you contains no actual tiger, just watermelon, strawberries and a hint of coconut. It sounds like a memory half-recalled too. The imperfect sensory recollections of the past.

I think about the malts I used to get at the corner store in Whitehorse when I was a kid, the shop just by the bridge that crosses the Yukon River. Always get it as a swirl of both the vanilla and the chocolate flavour. It will never taste as good and perfect as my memories tell me it did, but perfection isn’t the point of recollection.

A chorus of voices sings the lifting chorus of the hymn hidden in this song, held it like a penny I found, it might bring me something it might bring me down, you’ve got every excuse but it’s an eerie sound. That feeling takes over my body when a song hits just right, like a thousand needles stabbing every nerve ending.

The song ends, Bowie and I walk home down the street and I hit repeat once more. We walk slow so I can get one more play in, then two. We pass the mailman on his route and I wonder if he can hear what I can in the wind of the day. This voice and these gentle strings that have created a perfect kind of melancholy on the day. Waiting for the cicadas to come. He can’t of course, but goddamn I wish he could.

I wish everyone could feel like this. Sad a little, hopeful too. Lost in the half-recalled memories of days in smaller places. The dirt and the things buried in them. And this feels real, this is the truth as I feel it. I’m sure it’s been sold to me too, but that matters less. Maybe the truth is only ever alive in those who feel it.

Tigers Blood is a record that I’m going to love, and I’m going to get to know it slowly as each song becomes one I play on repeat on walks that take longer than I imagined they might as I hit play and repeat. Crutchfield’s turn as a songwriter delving into the world of a past she left behind, her home of Alabama trails back to roots dug into the soil around the trees in the south. Saint Cloud and Tigers Blood feel like the records she was always trying to make, when she was ready to connect the pieces back together and tell these stories.

We can’t rush to these things sometimes, there’s a lot to be written on the pages that lead to the end. I’m sure it’s hard as an artist to be in conversation with your past selves, especially as your sound shifts and changes as you search for something that feels like home. I like the journey in Waxahatchee’s past, the shades of a life that blend together to paint something beautiful in the present. Sad in parts and hopeful in others but something real and flawed and beautiful.

After 5 years of being sober I wanted the day and the minute the anniversary clicked over to mean something and to feel big. I wanted to feel the day marked on my skin like a tattoo. But that’s not real either. What is important is that I can have all of these days where I can feel the fire on the nerves in my body as a perfect song moves through me like a perfect breeze. That I can wince at the pain of the half-remembered past and wonder if the malts still taste as good at the corner store in our memories.

They never will, but it turns out that’s never been what matters.