Will Stratton – The Changing Wilderness – Album Review
by Cathy Brown
Will Stratton adds to his rich back catalogue in fine form with The Changing Wilderness, his seventh studio album, mixed and engineered by Stratton himself in his home studio outside New York. This new record is a pleasingly sonorous offering, that deserves to raise his profile even more.
Opening track Tokens is an opaque musing on the nature of love and time and features a gorgeous warm arrangement of acoustic fingerpicking, Ben Sereten’s unassuming electric guitar and comforting piano chords to create a lush 70s ambience that is hard to resist. It sets a tone of warm atmosphere and subtle delight which pervades the rest of the album.
Don’t be fooled by Stratton’s sweet tone though as lyrically, The Changing Wilderness is a much darker affair. Moving on from the introspection of his earlier albums, in particularly 2014’s Grey Lodge Wisdom which explored his experience with cancer, this new album sees him looking outward and not appreciating what he sees.
On several songs here he interrogates the state of America today. Black Hole is a driving and swirling kaleidoscope of sound which is fitting for a musical take on modern-day fascism, while Infertile Air with its sparse, echoed arrangement explores the pain of immigrants separated from their children under the Trump regime. Fate’s Ghost is a country-inflected slice of pastoral folk, with echoes of Sam Beam and Calexico, whose external beauty hides a darker heart, ‘”where are we going?”, I shout into the void’.
There are more intimate songs too. When I’ve been born (I’ll love you) combines Carmen Rothwell’s humming upright bass with the warmth of slide guitar to create an instantly moving song, perfectly hinged on a mainstream melody. River of Steel could be an outtake from a Midlake album with its thoughtful brushed drums while Stillness wears the influence of Leonard Cohen lightly as Stratton sings, ‘the window’s getting darker but the light keeps getting in’.
This is a record of furtive charms, which recalls Stratton’s long-time influence Nick Drake, as well as sounding at times surprisingly like John Martyn in the skilful guitar playing. There are no tracks jostling for attention here (although opener Tokens comes close) but instead is an album of small epiphanies that is both cathartic and enveloping.
Stratton rarely gets adventurous with his voice, and the songs, for the most part, are of the same pace and tone throughout. But like an artist working in different hues of the same colour, repeated exposure to this album delivers bigger rewards. He is a gifted creator of mood, taking the personal and raising it to a communal experience.
The Changing Wilderness is an irresistible album, created from stunning guitar playing, sweet warm vocals and darker, brooding lyrics. On these merits, it is a quiet triumph, a slice of lilting impassioned country folk that sustains an organic atmosphere throughout.