Will Stratton’s rich catalogue is proof that the Hudson Valley folk musician thrives on exploration and reflection. Chart his trajectory over his previous six albums and you’ll find a songwriter not content to stay comfortable or do the same thing twice. From his 2007 debut What the Night Said, which he released aged 20, to 2014’s Gray Lodge Wisdom, a resilient and gorgeous LP which documented his bout with cancer, as well as 2017’s Rosewood Almanac, a de facto love-letter to song-writing, his guitar, and his favourite records, the subtle but sizable tweaks to his process, arranging, and writing have been revelations. “I’ve always tried to make the process of making music as much of a source of pleasure and exploration as possible,” says Stratton. So it’s no surprise that The Changing Wilderness, his resonant and clear-eyed seventh album, pushes him to expansive new heights again.
The 10 tracks on the LP came about from an intense four-year period of soul-searching and change for Stratton, where he knew he needed to change the way he wrote songs. “I was just really sick of introspection,” he says. “I had to write music that felt like it was engaging with the outside world, rather than focusing on what was going on in my own life like on my earlier records.” With the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s Presidency, and rising right-wing extremism on his mind, Stratton set out to interrogate his country’s present crises. Like the best protest music, these songs aren’t didactic or preachy. Instead, they ask more questions than claim to have answers with Stratton’s lyrics taking a scalpel-like approach to the very worst of human nature.
Take the single ‘Black Hole’ which navigates the human toll of fascism. Midway through the song, its pastoral arrangement briefly fades out, leaving Stratton’s voice central in the mix. He sings, “Hatred corrupts, and it purifies, too / It simplifies thoughts just like love can do / Oh, I miss when it was an optional vice / Something you’d choose when fear was the price.”
Elsewhere, songs like ‘Infertile Air’, bluntly and unflinchingly casts its focus on those who collaborate with the forces of state violence. Over a sparse, almost dirge-like instrumental, it opens with the incisive lines, “When you tore them from her breast / And you drove home in your car / Did you think you’d get to rest / Without denying who you are.” It’s not difficult to draw the connection to ICE and its violent family separation policy. “I was trying to imagine what it feels like to be somebody who is so sure of their own convictions when they’re a tool of the state,” explains Stratton. Another track, the bucolic and rollicking ‘Fate’s Ghost’, finds its depth in more opaque imagery but when Stratton sings, “Where are we going, I shout into the void / Do you feel powerless there, or is it beyond any word?” it’s totally resonant.
Stratton engineered and mixed every song on The Changing Wilderness from his home studio in Beacon, NY, but he recruited a sizable ensemble of old friends and new collaborators to flesh out the arrangements, including vocalists Maia Friedman, Cassandra Jenkins, Katie Mullins, and Eamon Fogarty, as well as electric guitarist Ben Seretan, upright bassist Carmen Rothwell, saxophonist and clarinetist Justin Keller, and drummers Sean Mullins (Wilder Maker) and Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley). As a result the songs on the LP are immaculately constructed and produced, some evoking the lushest offerings from Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson while others take on the intimacy of artists like Ted Lucas and Joni Mitchell. Stratton’s keen ear for songs that have no expiration date both sonically and thematically is obvious throughout the track-list. Lead single ‘Tokens’ is ornate and unhurriedly unfolds with some of Stratton’s most evocative lyrics yet by personifying two of the most commonly sung themes in popular music. He sings, “Time, who knows what leads to the fall / Will you end in a crowd, or end all alone?” and “Love, the ways that we change over time / Don’t alter the rules or reset the game.”
Though Stratton initially sought out to avoid personal song-writing on this LP, his arbitrary rules became untenable as he got deeper into the writing process. “Over the past four years as the world around us got progressively more screwed up, it became impossible for me to write something that wasn’t somewhat introspective,” he says. The Changing Wilderness operates in dichotomies: darkness vs. light and processing your own personal struggles through the vast and seemingly insurmountable problems the world is facing. On “When I’ve Been Born (I’ll Love You),” Stratton sings, “The present is prosaic, the future a disgrace” but it’s not out of bleak resignation. There’s hope at the core of the song and the album as a whole. He sings, “As the oceans rise, I’ll love you / When the air gets thin, I’ll love you / If the fascists win, I’ll love you.”