Will Stratton is poised at a moment of spiritual and artistic growth, and lucky for us he is committing it to tape (or hard drive, rather). His first two records, 2007’s What the Night Said and 2009’s No Wonder, were received warmly by fans of beautiful acoustic pop songs with spiderweb-delicate fingerpicking and hushed, intimate vocals. For them he garnered innumerable Nick Drake comparisons and honest, thoughtful praise from many corners of the media. Coke Machine Glow called No Wonder “a lovely, humble, mature record from a person who seems like a lovely, humble, mature human being,” and this is exactly how it feels to listen to it. Mature and humble are hardly the attributes that get the blog hormones flowing these days, but in some ways we are reaping the benefits of the fact that Stratton hasn’t completely blown up in the hyperbolic, slavering world of blog music journalism. No Wonder was a perfectly lovely album that could have been replicated for an entire career (see Damien Jurado, for example). It is dramatic enough to be moving without coming anywhere close to gaudiness, simple and understated enough to seem completely uncontrived, intelligent enough to ring true in a way that surpasses platitudes, and warm enough that you get an immediate sense of the human heart behind the songs. The drama in it comes from delicate internal moments like walking home, alone and lovestruck, after a party, the way it often does in real life, at least for the kind of people who tend to listen to melancholic acoustic pop music that is heavy on the I-IV chord progressions and literate lyrics (I can be mildly snarky because I count myself squarely in this camp). Stratton could have had a lovely career working within those straight-forward song forms, but he has the searching and self-critical personality of an artist, rather than just a craftsman.
Stratton was very young when he recorded those two albums (he still is, really), and had he been launched into the slobbery jaws of even indie-stardom, we might not be seeing the kind of growth we can see in his new music, some of which he has kindly allowed Ampeater to convey to you, the people. The appeal of the delicate, melancholy, direct songs of his first two albums is strong, and it hasn’t been banished by any means, but here Stratton begins to mold it into something less predictable and more expansive. I’ll let him speak for himself because he is incredibly eloquent: “There is a single spiritual position that exists in songs like [Nick Drake’s] “Which Will” that is so strong that, when you hear it, it seems like it becomes the only thing that exists in the world(…)That kind of music, written from a place of such isolation, has the illusion of clarity. Maybe it has real clarity, it’s hard for me to say. Either way, I’m tired of being in that place. I want to forge out on my own and wind up some place I don’t recognize. I want to learn to express very specific moments of anger, flirtatiousness, joy–all things that are more or less absent in Nick Drake’s music–with the same sort of gutwrenching precision that he used to express the false sense of omniscience that accompanies deep despair.”
After all that setup, you’re probably expecting some death metal or fifteen minute guitar solos or synthy 80’s pop. Well, there’s none of that, but improvisation does play a key role these songs in a way that it never has before. A-side “Bluebells” commences with an open piano-figure that recalls the beginning of Bon Iver’s “Babys” , but which is harmonically static and probably comes instead from interest in recent minimalist classical music (our conversation was educational for me in this arena, to say the least, but I recommend checking out John Luther Adams, David Lang, Arvo Part, & Gavin Bryars for starters). Over this piano drone, Stratton lays out a few minutes of warm, tumbling guitar, all of which was improvised. He has lately taken to using first takes, saying that “it keeps me thinking on my toes.” This interest in spontaneity is another bold move, directly in opposition to the precise and measured craft of his previous work, yet one which serves the song to the very same extent that Stratton’s simpler pop forms served his earlier work. Here it serves as both a counterweight to the minimal and gorgeous piano/vocals outro and as a kind of mood-setter, capturing an expansive, still feeling that isn’t easily conveyable through traditional songwriting. It’s something we haven’t heard from Stratton before, a sound that seems to call to mind wide open landscapes at dawn, the sun slowly infusing the crevices of rocks with its light.
It’s onto this landscape that Stratton projects his melancholy song, yet there’s something strangely dusty and distant about the sadness in “Bluebells” . The effects obscure his voice just enough to render it ghostly, almost like a voice from the past (you can just barely hear it hovering behind the guitar solos), and the song is narrated in the second person, making it about the listener rather than the singer. It’s a subtly alarming shift, putting us in the position of being hopelessly lost, rather than safely empathizing with a narrator who is hopelessly lost. The clashing guitars that rise up around the four minute mark, crackling and slashing one another like contentious bolts of lightning, infuse the song with a dissonance that, though it disappears quickly, enhances this air of desperation and sadness, especially when we’re lead out into a beautiful piano and vocal section only to hear the line “by now you must have been certain that it had all been a lie” . When the narrator tells us that we still kept searching for our lost love, it’s hard to tell whether it’s sweet or pathetic, and this ambiguity is crushingly sad. Are we deluded or determined? Both? Also to be noted, over the middle section with it’s minimal backbeat, when Stratton is singing “which way did my darling go?” , is the way the bass note on the guitar gradually bends up from the four chord to the five, introducing some dissonant intermediate notes and a sense of unease and muted violence that wouldn’t be present if he’d just played the chord progression straight.
B-side “The Hudson Line” is as close to Stratton’s earlier work as anything he sent us. His voice is stripped of the effects that mask it on “Bluebells” and left to cut clearly over the beautiful lattice of fingerpicked acoustic guitar. It is a love song, yet it’s not so much a declaration of love as an assessment of a love that has come and gone. The moments of sweetness are now tempered by the temporal distance, and the wistful mood is perfectly captured by the lines “all I know all I know all I know / is all greatness is born out of sin / but somehow I saw you” . The narrator’s relationship with the woman is something born out of sin, yet at the same time it seems to be the one thing that transcends this tautology. It’s a sweetness that is rendered all the sweeter by the darkness of the worldview in which it sits. The background against which these lyrics are set is appropriately lovely and delicate, yet it’s easy to miss just how amazing and skillful the rhythmic interplay is between the thumb and the rest of the hand. Stratton, though he’s no show off, is an incredibly agile and creative guitarist, with a sense of play that allows him to slip away from the expected patterns of folk and rock guitar. Aside from providing a harmonic backbone, the guitar here frequently subdivides the bar into uneven groups of threes, giving the song a rolling feeling mirrored in the lyrics about “galloping along the Hudson Line.”
These exclusive tracks represent the evocative songwriting Stratton is known for, only evolved to the next step. Thankfully for us listeners, he is a person who is constantly pushing himself forward, stretching for something just beyond his reach. We have the luxury of being able to sit back and immerse ourselves in the discoveries he makes along the way, the beautiful music that composes Will Stratton’s journey through the world. Stay tuned for another digital 7” in the coming weeks, as well as greater portions of the interview.
The Hudson Line
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem070/02 The Hudson Line.mp3