Will Stratton opens his fifth album, Gray Lodge Wisdom, with a series of lofty musings set against swirls of strings and gentle stabs of electric guitar. “Why sing about death when I just almost died? Why sing about life when I’m still alive?” These questions aren’t necessarily rhetorical: Stratton wrote and recorded these songs while undergoing multiple surgeries and chemotherapy treatments for testicular cancer. He made a full recovery as well as the best album of his career.
Gray Lodge Wisdom is a deeply assured and ambitious collection of prismatic folk tunes that should possess emotional weight even for listeners who don’t know Stratton’s backstory. He sings in a modest, pensive voice, as though narrating his daydreams, and he plays a graceful finger-style guitar that recalls Nick Drake in its pastoral complexities and John Fahey in its deft sense of motion. Most of these songs feature just those two instruments — voice and guitar — although some of the best moments are also the most orchestrated, such as the woozy strings on the title track and the Doppler-synth prologue to closer “Fate Song.”
Stratton writes like a reluctant memoirist, guardedly parceling out personal information as he toggles between lofty ideas and clinical details. “The last of the morphine’s gone, the needles swept away,” he sings on “Fate Song.” “I’ve taken the last of my pills, and the clouds lift from my brain.” Not necessarily celebratory but certainly not dour, Gray Lodge Wisdom is mostly concerned with the aftermath of such a life-changing event: What do you sing about when you’ve faced death for so long? What do you do when the clouds finally lift? These songs are both spirited questions and convincing answers.