Sometimes, it’s just unfair: a young, budding musical talent who releases an album that exhibits a maturity that’s light years ahead of half the independent artists working today. Indie-lovers everywhere fawned over the whiz-kid of 2006: Beirut’s Zach Condon. In his case, the buzz was well-justified — a kid who wasn’t even 21 released a debut album that lacked any sort of guitars in exchange for gypsy-influenced arrangements hitting an underground mentality, resulting in a amazing debut album well beyond his years.
Enter Will Stratton.
His background is simple: a New Jersey kid whose love of classical music eventually lead him to explore different musical extremes, trying to make it in various punk and ska bands before he discovered his calling as a folk singer. His debut, What the Night Said, is aptly titled — it’s an album designed for late-night driving, evening walks, and quiet introspection. One could do an easy cop-out by comparing it to early Sufjan Stevens, but that comparison is so apparent that even Sufjan himself swings by to play oboe on a few songs (as does Tony Rogers, best known as Jens Lekman’s cellist). Such big-name support is remarkable for a debut album; it’s even more remarkable when you learn that Stratton is only 20 years old.
The album opens with “Katydid”, riding a gorgeous twilight-bound piano line. The song is a musical companion to Sufjan’s more emotional ballads, but the magic truly strikes when Stratton opens his mouth. His voice is simple and plainspoken, each line delivered without an ounce of ego; every word comes straight from the heart. He lays his woes bare in the opening verse:
Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong, baby
I’ll do all that I can
And if it’s about where we’re headed, maybe
You’ve got the wrong man
‘Cos I can see for miles when the sun is up
But it’s midnight and I can’t see at all
It’s so hard and I can’t think at all
It’s an admittance of frustration that doubles over as an acceptance of his own insecurities. One of the song’s closing lines is “We’re still stupid and we’re young”, which fesses up to relationship ignorance on both parts, serving as a breakup lament that’s filled with more ambiguities than finished endings — a closer reflection of real life. It’s a remarkable opener, but sets the bar very high for the songs that follow.
The reason why the rest of the LP works is due to its remarkable brevity. Not a single track clocks over four minutes (with most barely topping three), leaving no time for filler. Stratton gets straight to the point, but never rushes things. Nick Drake’s debut, Five Leaves Left, was one of the finest folk albums ever released, but even then Drake occasionally drifted into the drawn-out epic structure, with songs that began to drift after crossing the six-minute mark. When Stratton’s “Fireflies” comes along, the Drake influence is unmistakable (especially with the parallel melodicism of the acoustic guitar and cello), but it never wanders, making it a far cry from derivative and even closer to full-on homage. The verses are quietly optimistic, occasionally stunning (particularly the line: “These summer nights are like walking through / A hiding place a child found”). Such wide-eyed lyrical wonder used to be commonplace during the rise of Drake and Joni Mitchell in the mid-’70s, but has since become so scant that hearing it now serves as a breath of fresh air. If he was stealing styles for personal gain, each song’s vibe — and end result — would be much different, but since Stratton wears these influences right on his sleeve, we are left with nothing but a love-letter to the greats who have mastered this genre before him (all lovingly tied together with acoustic guitar strings).
Yet a full album of hushed acoustic strumming, admittedly, would be rather dull, which is why Stratton looks to Mark Kozelek’s School of Folk Song Diversity for help. Much like the ex-Red House Painters frontman before him, Stratton has a nice, meaty mid-tempo rocker to pick things up (“Night Will Come”, a dead ringer for Sun Kil Moon’s “Lily & Parrots”). Of course, he can’t completely let a song escape from indie leanings — the opening verse freely quotes from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. It’s a pleasant tune that also serves as sharp contrast to the only other upbeat number — “Sonnet” — which just happens to be the album’s weakest moment. Here, his lyrics can still be effective (“So let’s make this distance a little game / We’ll go into the city and disappear / Nothing will ever be the same aside from our first names”), but they also veer dangerously into high-school poetry territory as well (“We’ll ban all mirrors and calendars so we won’t age”). It stands out like a sore thumb because it feels like the most slapped-together song, with haphazard handclaps coming half-way through not sounding joyous at all (and it’s obvious that they’re intended to be). A failed experiment it may be, but it still serves its function of keeping the album diverse and not wallowing.
Aside from “Sonnet”, What the Night Said is a fantastic series of highlights that stand strong by themselves as well as within the context of the album. The Kozelek influence pops up again on “Oh Quiet Night”, but this time tackling Kozelek’s acoustic side (which many might argue is his best), here with Stratton detailing a relationship that starts as simply “friends with benefits” and then turning into something more:
The headlights of a car
Sweep the bedroom walls
The icing of the stars
Makes it seem like the world is ours
And we dissolve
Beneath the covers
While snow blankets everything
As easy as it would be to play spot-the-influence on each song, that ultimately defeats the purpose that Will Stratton set out to do: make an album of songs that were custom-fitted for listening to at night. Stratton succeeds, and beautifully so. The whole set clocks in at a mere 33 minutes, proving that conciseness often equals consistency. Stratton’s restraint is his strength, making a debut album that arrives fully-formed and ready to prove itself. If What the Night Said is not a straight-up masterpiece, then it’s pretty damn close.