[11 November 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
When the 19-year-old Will Stratton released his debut album What the Night Said back in 2007, few would’ve guessed that this tenderfooted Nick Drake acolyte would amount to much of anything. After all, how many “next big thing” folk artists have come and gone in the past decade alone, much less ones that weren’t even of proper drinking age at the time?
Yet, against all odds, What the Night Said worked, and spectacularly so. Even if the main press point at the time was how Sufjan Stevens felt inclined to contribute some instrumental work to the disc, many stuck around for the songs themselves: precious little numbers that contained a very haunted, very heartbroken kind of melancholy. Though Stratton’s fingerpicked guitar work was nothing short of impressive, What the Night Said never got too showy or too melodramatic, frequently letting the songs speak for themselves without resorting to all the neat little production bells and whistles that derail artists of Stratton’s ilk into the dangerous realm of pretension. Stratton’s debut album was a mess of contradictions: lush yet simple, world-weary and hopelessly naïve at the exact same time. While likeminded artists like Jacob Golden focused on trying to create the next Sea Change, Stratton simply focused on making the first-ever Will Stratton album, and for that alone he deserves commendation.
Then, of course, he disappeared.
Though his blog posts at the time noted that all of the songs for his second album were already written by the time that What the Night Said was released, Stratton played his hand smartly, finishing out his music degree at Bennington College and—instead of rush-releasing a followup album—reworked his new tracks over and over and over again in the quiet of his dorm room. During his downtime, he wound up releasing not one, but two full-length albums of demos, rarities, and instrumental passages for free online, and many of the tracks on those releases appear here, but in remarkably different (and better) form. By not hoarding his lesser songs for future inclusion on some 7” single or EP down the line, not only has Stratton given us a view of his creative process, but—in doing so—he has forced his own hand, raising the already-high expectations for his second album by implying that the best songs have yet to come ...
And you know what? He’s right.
No Wonder immediately distinguishes itself from its predecessor by completely dropping the lo-fi trappings of his debut album in favor of a much more muscular production approach. Echo-heavy electric guitars, deep drum sounds, and accompanying female vocalists pepper No Wonder‘s soundscape, and as such, Stratton’s textural palette has grown to match his emotional one. Opening with the very sweet, understated “Who Will”, Stratton immediately asks who is going to save our souls, opening up a slightly spiritual undercurrent to his lyrical template this time out, something that’s explored in both “Robin & Marian” (the two met at a church, Marian being a keen follower of Jesus’ teachings even when it doesn’t feel right, etc.) and the history-rewritten ode “Judas, 1966”. Yes, much bigger issues are on the agenda this go-round, but a majority of No Wonder‘s songs still hinge on Stratton’s tales of unrequited love, something that’s rapidly becoming his specialty.
Yet the spiritual, the literary, and the romantic all collide on “For Franny Glass”, an at-face ode to the classic J.D. Salinger story Franny & Zooey, which details the young Franny as one who is fed up with her school’s fakeness and egotism, who wishes to cleanse her soul through prayer yet ultimately accepts a resigned style of fatalism, something which is detailed in Stratton’s direct-address lyrics (“No matter which road you’re going down, I wish you well / I’ll see you when the Earth kisses the sun”). On the equally well-read “Robin & Marian”—whose guitar and drum work makes it sound like a forgotten latter-day Grizzly Bear track—Stratton carefully analyzes the relationship between the iconic couple, noting how even as Robin Hood went out to steal from the rich and give to the poor, Maid Marian was often emotionally neglected in the long run, Marian wishing simply for Robin to get her one nice thing while he’s out doing nice things for everyone else. Within the six-minute duration, Stratton is able to detail the relationship and conflicts with remarkable precision, from their initial encounters to Robin Hood’s dying moment, all while retaining one hell of an emotional punch.
While at times echoing likeminded folksters like Fionn Regan (on “The Country Clear”) and underrated country-rockers Lucero (on the dead ringer “You’re a Real Thing”), Stratton still bases his music in modern folk stylings, occasionally incorporating other elements like a standup jazz bass on “Your California Sky” just to add more color to the proceedings. Yet the most affecting moments still come from the times when Stratton does nothing more than sing and play his acoustic guitar by his lonesome, like on the positively gorgeous title track—which uses a stuttering E-string bassline to accent his complex vocal and guitar work—and the spectacular haunted-memories tale “The Past Always Runs Faster”. At times a bit bleaker than its predecessor (moments on “For No One” are quietly venomous, particularly when it comes to what the song’s title actually means), No Wonder has a sweet honesty that shines through each and every time, especially when Stratton is noting life’s small details. For example, when the narrator of “For No One” gets a small apartment with his beloved, he admits that he probably won’t actually have time to decorate it at all. Those small little bits of doubt and uncertainty make Stratton’s characters so rich and human, and that’s part of what makes No Wonder such a joy to listen to.
It should be noted, however, that though Stratton’s ambitions are admirable and frequently successful, there are a few overwrought moments that weigh this Wonder down. Though he does make two very delightful excursions into more “mainstream” pop-rock territory (in the forms of “Nineteen” and the fantastically catchy “It’s OK If You Want To”), his one attempt at a faux-punk song (“If Only”) is ruined by its reedy production and the simple fact that with such indelible melodic charms, Will Stratton simply cannot write something as visceral or immediate as a punk song—his multitude of guitar flourishes ultimately negates any sort of abrasiveness that he’s trying to go for. Furthermore, the closing piano ballad “New Jersey” is a bit too dry, featuring very little in the way of dynamics and making for one surprisingly forgettable closer.
Yet even with those misgivings, it’s pretty hard to come down on Wonder too much, especially given its incredible, stunning highs. This is a disc that’s stronger, meatier, and much braver than Stratton’s carefully considered debut, and even at the ripe age of 22, Stratton has—once again—proven that he’s capable of filling his songs with more heart and insight than writers twice his age. No Wonder may not be as consistent as What the Night Said, but at this point in his career, it doesn’t really need to be. This is Stratton’s time to do nothing more than to stretch himself out, try new things, and amaze us with his talents all over again.