Is true art the consequence of pain or perhaps even madness? I once asked a musician whether or not it was eerie that artists such as Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith seemed to sing about their own demise. His answer was that all singers write lyrics about their own deaths, that it’s inherent in the disturbed mind of the rock lyricist. But is that necessarily true? Are there any really happy people out there writing engaging music? When it comes to art of any kind, happiness seems to be the absolute killer. Sure it can happen, but you end up with troll dolls, Hello Kitty and Weird Al Yankovic, no offense to Al. Hell, if you watch Inside the Actor’s Studio it seems as if every single successful actor lives with emotional pain because of divorced parents, abandonment or loss. So is that really what it takes to be a respected artist with serious work? I don’t know if there’s an answer to that question, but there certainly is a trend. I have no idea what goes on in the personal life of Will Stratton, but it sure seems as if he has that requisite darkness of depression surrounding him.
What the Night Said is the debut album from Stratton, a New Jersey native who has tried his hand at various types of music, eventually settling on the intimate and hushed folk that we’ve found so endearing in artists such as Iron & Wine and Sun Kil Moon. The album’s title says it all, being a series of songs that revolve around darkness, whether literal or figurative. Stratton’s voice delicately traces paths of broken relationships and doomed love, all draped in the cloak of the evening. “Katydid,” the opener of the album, finds Stratton not able to see any kind of future for his relationship, using the metaphor of night as a blinder. “So Ashamed,” with its plaintive slide guitar, weepy strings and banjo, seems to evoke the drowsy hours of sunset, sitting on a porch and letting the difficult day wind down to a close. The same can be said for “Fireflies,” a song that is reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s more sedate and beautiful tracks like “Going to California.”
Darkness abounds in Stratton’s lyrics as well, such as in his song, “Lost the Fear,” in which he sings that he has only lost said fear as it was replaced with boredom. In a song you would think has some semblance of hope, “I’d Hate to Leave You,” he undercuts the song title by following it with the line, “I’d love to leave you for good.” Other lines such as “I’m heartless like a flint that never sparks,” only further extinguish any flames of optimism. Thankfully, Stratton has a delicate and wistful voice that manages to win over your ears despite the gloom. Melodic acoustic guitars, hollow piano plinking and the myriad of other instruments on the album are also finely played. But remember, isn’t this what true art is all about? Would anyone listen to this album if Stratton were quietly expressing his love of rainbows, unicorns and kittens? Most likely not.
What the Night Said is the ideal soundtrack for that late lonely summer night when it’s just too hot to get under the covers and sleep, when you are staying up merely to find solace in the unhappiness of others. I think that’s the beauty of this album. Although it is filled with broken hearts and desperation, his sharing it with us makes ours a little easier to bear. Yes, that’s an old cliché that `misery loves company,’ but it’s nowhere more true than on the debut album from Will Stratton. I don’t think that it’s merely a matter of Stratton being incredibly depressed, however. There’s a slight chance of hope / realism in the song “Stay Awake,” in which he sings, “don’t say a thing, unless it means that everything will change for the better.” In a way, this makes the entire album seem like therapy, like someone writing things in a journal just so they aren’t completely enveloped by their own dismay. What the Night Said is one of those rare debut albums that is both accomplished and soaked with potential all at the same time.