First of all, before getting into any kind of review, I’d like to say just how nice it is to see Will Stratton back releasing music. The New York-based songwriter wrote and recorded his fifth album, Gray Lodge Wisdom, while receiving treatment for stage III testicular cancer. I mention these circumstances because of the unquestionable impact they must have played on Stratton’s psyche and abilities during recording (he moved to his parents in Washington state during his convalescence and created an ad-hoc recording studio there to tape the initial forms of these songs). But this isn’t an album about those circumstances, just one affected by them. “I hope that this doesn’t come across as a Record About Cancer, because it’s not,” he says. “I think that it informed the process and the sound of the record more than it affected the content of some of the songs”.
The album’s title is a direct reference to this period in Stratton’s life (the Twin Peaks reference a result of repeated bed-ridden viewings during his recovery). The Gray Lodge represents a midway point between the White and Black Lodges which serve as epicentres of good and evil in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. “What struck me about what I was going through was that all the notions of good and bad and pain and pleasure, darkness and lightness, were all gone,” he says. “They no longer made any sense to me because my frame of reference was completely different. The Gray Lodge was the hospital for me, and the Northwest in general―this really gray, dark, rainy place where I was going to heal. The album title is about coming out of that experience feeling a bit wiser than I was before.”
Musically, Gray Lodge Wisdom is a worthy addition to Stratton’s impressive canon. His finger picked guitar and beautiful string arrangements are present, as are his woderfully eloquent lyrics. The album also contains some very nice guest appearances. Tamara Lindeman (aka The Weather Station) provides a guest verse on the title track, and Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins) sings on ‘The Arrow Darkens’. The sound is subtle, gentle and reflective, not mournful nor angry or jubilant.
But the legacy of the album is its impact on Stratton’s attitude towards his disease. This is not an album based entirely on the pain and suffering of that period of his life. Rather it is a portrait of a young man feeling his way into the world. Yes his disease has left an indelible mark on him, but he refuses to be defined by the disease alone, and is now attempting to hang on to the positive effects it had on him. “I feel like I have to choose the things to hold onto that I want to remember and that I want to continue to make a part of who I am,” he explains. “Coming out on the other side of this and having an immense feeling of gratitude is a pretty powerful thing.” The album is one of acceptance: a recognition that suffering and death are part of life, and a conviction that these things should not define our existence.
“Why sing about death when I almost died? Why sing about life when I’m still alive?”
You can buy Gray Lodge Wisdom right now via French label Talitres