There is a fullness and calmness there which can come only from knowing pain.
—Dan Simmons, Hyperion
Just as For Emma, Forever Ago will never be able to escape the cabin in the woods mythology from which it sprung, Will Stratton’s Gray Lodge Wisdom will be always bound to being known as the first album he recorded following his diagnosis and eventual triumph over stage 3 testicular cancer. It would be hard to imagine the record not dealing with the cancer; anyone in the know about Stratton and his music is undoubtedly aware of the stories of his surgeries and subsequent recovery. Over the past two years, Stratton has kept the world abreast of his battle with the disease through his Tumblr, and in June 2013 Brian Sendrowitz and Maia Macdonald put together a wonderful tribute album in If You Wait Long Enough: Songs of Will Stratton, which, in addition to being a fine collection of tunes, also served as a benefit to help Stratton bear the medical costs he had accrued. Mortality does a lot more than linger in Gray Lodge Wisdom. At the same time, however, the record doesn’t get bogged down in the lugubrious matters of death and all that may (not) linger in the great beyond. Though it would be easy to make this music “about” death and illness in a heavy-handed way, Stratton opts to let his suffering inform but not dominate the music. One of Gray Lodge Wisdom’s best cuts, “Long Live the Hudson River”, is a simple tome to the beautiful landscapes of the world, without any hint of gloom underneath.
It should be mentioned, however, is that while the song is “simple” in lyrical matter and to some extent song construction, Stratton’s guitar playing technique remains, as ever, marvelously dexterous. “Hudson River” has the feel of the great folk songs, but Stratton adds complexity to what could have been a much more spare arrangement with his tasteful fingerstyle technique. There are passages on Gray Lodge Wisdom where his speed and agility bring to mind Al Di Meola or even Paco de Lucía, but as with his past albums he never drowns the listener in what is an obviously high level of skill. Looking over Stratton’s past works, it’s amazing to hear how his focus is always on the big-picture aspects of constructing an album: songs rather than riffs, mood rather than technical flashiness. Yet when one spins a record like his debut, the moonlight-hued What the Night Said, it’s easy to miss the often intricate instrumentation that underlies these deceivingly complex songs. Post-Empire, his last studio effort, feels like a widescreen epic, but more than a few tracks on it comprise nothing more than Stratton’s voice and guitar.
Gray Lodge Wisdom strikes a similar balance between intimacy and grandeur, though the former is definitely the more prominent feature. The string arrangements lilt rather than swoon; particularly on the charming “Yeah, I’ll Requite Your Love”. In one instance, on the country-tinged “The Arrow Darkens”, the strings somewhat distract from what is a far superior guitar part, but those instances don’t happen more than they do. On “Dreams of Big Sur”, the strings probably could have been done without—instrumentally the strongest feature of that song is the plinking interplay between the piano and the guitar—but as it stands it forms an understated background to what is an impressive album highlight. The title cut, in contrast to the bulk of the record, finds a fairly full arrangement, with electric guitars and lush strings weaving together atop a paced drumbeat as Stratton asks existential questions far too big for a song to answer.
“Why sing about death/When I just almost died?” he asks: “Why sing about life/When I’m still alive?” Lyrically, Gray Lodge Wisdom is not “about” mortality; as Stratton’s lyrics indicate, it depicts the change in perspective that comes after a traumatic event. “I got so sick”, Stratton sings on “Wild Rose”: “But then I lived”. The gritty gray that colors Gray Lodge Wisdom’s sleeve art may signal it as some moody meditation on almost shaking hands with the reaper, but the lyrics here are uniformly measured and, in the end, optimistic. Whereas on “Gray Lodge Wisdom” Stratton asks, “Why sing about God / When she don’t exist?”, on the straightforwardly titled “Fate Song”, he confesses, “I must thank some God I’ve survived my fate”. Of course, the operative word in that lyric is “some”; as the persistent questioning of the title track indicates, Stratton isn’t out to give definitive answers. On the matter of whether or not heaven really is real, the jury of the Gray Lodge is still out. But there’s a real grace in hearing music written by a guy whose eyes have been opened anew. By the end of these eight songs, your eyes probably will be too.