Music

Will Stratton: No Wonder

Following his quiet stunner of a debut album, this 22-year-old folk artist just proved that lightning, indeed, can strike the same place twice.


Will Stratton

No Wonder

Label: Stunning Models on Display
US Release Date: 2009-11-09
UK Release Date: 2009-11-13
Label Website
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image