Named after the Waxahatchee Creek in Alabama, indie band Waxahatchee was founded in 2010 by lead singer and guitarist Katie Crutchfield. Her 2012 breakout album, American Weekend, was recorded in only a week at her family home in Birmingham, Alabama.
Crutchfield is adept at tugging on the heartstrings of her listeners by utilizing casual, yet exquisite language and imagery in her lyrics, allowing listeners to easily connect to what she sings. Much of this raw tone is used throughout American Weekend, but I think with the proper recording studio, it is honed in her second album, Cerulean Salt (2013). This album features a song that I think best embodies the raw, casual, and exquisite (and of course melancholic) language and imagery of Waxahatchee, and that song is “Brother Bryan.”
“I said to you on the night that we met, ‘I am not well’”
We are first introduced to two people in this song — a vulnerable narrator and a person in which the narrator is speaking to. The fact that the narrator openly admits that they are “not well” to a person they have just met says a lot about what the narrator could be dealing with. The first thing that comes to mind for me was depression. People afflicted with this illness handle it in different ways when it comes to the public — some may keep it a secret to try and fit in with what is “normal,” and others may feel so lost and hopeless that it’s their last attempt to reach out to someone for help. I think the narrator in this song embodies the latter.
“Our habits secrete to the sidewalk and street, our civic hell”
In the second line, I get the feeling that the person the narrator has met tends to have a bad influence on them, seen with the habits that “secrete to the sidewalk and street,” or rather, become permanent, addictive actions you can’t take back. We know that the narrator is vulnerable, though the reason isn’t known yet, but with vulnerability often comes impressionability. Perhaps the narrator believes that this person can help them in some way; maybe to feel something again.
“And we covet the dark, share a cab to the park”
Though seemingly simplistic, the dark imagery present in this first stanza beautifully adds to the raw emotions Crutchfield conveys. “Civic hell” could be a description of the monotonous hustle and bustle of modern day society around the narrator, something that they no longer find interesting or important. “We covet the dark” refers to the narrator knowing that it is wrong to desire such bad habits they’ve picked up, but continue anyway in hopes that it will make them feel alive once again.
“And you’ll let me speak of bearings undone, silver hair in the sun”
In the fourth line, we find that despite having gained the unfortunate habits, the narrator recognizes that they are able to speak freely to this person and get their “bearings” on their thoughts. We also are given somewhat of an image of who this person could be with “silver hair in the sun” — perhaps an older man or woman.
“We are only 30% dead and our parents go to sleep early
We destroy all of our esteem and the sunlight starts to shine through the trees”
The fifth line is interesting because we are introduced to parental figures who “go to sleep early,” or in other words, follow their routine of “civic hell.” In contrast with this image, the narrator and unnamed person continue to disrespect themselves; their “esteem,” by the continuation of their bad habits until the “sunlight starts to shine through the trees,” or during all hours of the night until morning. This image reminds me of rebellious teenagers, leading me to think that the narrator could definitely be part of this age group.
“And the noise on this block keeps my mind interlocked and unfastened
And the struggle sheds skin, heavy breath is a deadly assassin”
In the second stanza, we are taken deeper into what the narrator is actually feeling. The “noise on this block,” or perhaps once again referring to that “civic hell,” repeatedly grounds and un-grounds the narrator mentally. They struggle to stay in the present moment — even the act of breathing causes the narrator pain. If they admit their existence, the reality around them, whatever terrible thing that made them so vulnerable in the first place is also acknowledged.
“My sister’s eyes flood like rivers of wine in your absence”
In the third line of this stanza, we are finally given the last clue to the puzzle. The name of the song being “Brother Bryan,” the mentioning of parents, and now the reveal of a sister — the narrator and their family are mourning the loss of a brother/son. “My sister’s eyes flow like rivers of wine in your absence” is an exquisitely haunting image in the way that we are shown another effect of the loss on a different family member — the sister of the narrator has become an alcoholic due to the brother’s “absence.” In comparison to a previous line where the parents “go to sleep early,” as if they’ve already forgotten about their deceased son, the siblings are still very much struggling with the death of their brother.
“So we echo each song to which you’d sing along
Our surrogate hymn and we’ll sing it again
And we’ll smoke till our pockets are empty
A person cannot live without sleep”
Lines four and five are the siblings’ attempt to keep the memory of their brother alive even though things will never be the same. We are then taken to the habit of smoking until they have no money left — perhaps it could even be marijuana that they’re smoking as “a person cannot live without sleep.” Insomnia has taken its toll on them since the loss of their brother and maybe this is the only way they can get some sleep in order to keep functioning.
“And you can’t hold up a story so heavy
We tell it so rarely”
The last two lines in this stanza fully explain the intentions of how the song began instrumentally. No time is wasted; the song immediately begins with a deep thrumming of a guitar combined with Crutchfield’s lyrics. This is significant because this accentuates the fact that the narrator can no longer “hold up a story so heavy.” The urgency of the song is essentially the narrator telling her traumatic story because she cannot keep it inside anymore, since they “tell it so rarely.”
“And in this place I think about you
The spirits and veins that you run through
And in this place I think about you”
I think the “place” the narrator refers to is their own head. Since the brother’s physical form no longer exists, all the narrator is left with is the memories they have of him.
I feel that there are a few things left unexplained in “Brother Bryan,” such as the sudden disappearance of the unnamed person from the first stanza and the sudden introduction of the sister in the second stanza. I do think that the vague parts Crutchfield leaves in her song adds to the instability of the narrator. It seems that as a whole, they couldn’t make up their mind on whether or not to keep the death of their brother a secret. Of course, this is only one analysis.
“Brother Bryan” doesn’t contain a lot of lyrics, but as you can tell from my lengthy analysis, a song doesn’t need anymore than a couple verses in order to convey its meaning. Crutchfield has done an impeccable job weaving such dark images into her words in a way that her listeners can really relate to. For anyone who has experienced a death in their immediate family, I’m sure this song would really strike a chord with them.
Crutchfield’s other albums, including her most recent release, Ivy Tripp (2015), don’t stray from her signature casual yet haunting and relatable tone. Crutchfield isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of her music, however, and tends to wear many hats when it comes to genres — folk, rock, indie, etc. — proving that Waxahatchee can be a band for anyone to enjoy.
— Bree Scott, Asst. Blog Editor