Will Stratton’s ‘Rosewood Almanac’ has an enchanting title – and this feeds further into the enchanting quality of the music. In the American’s debut release on the label Bella Union, he seems to consider the content of an ‘almanac’ – a calendar of important dates and figures – and applies it to emotion. In ten tracks, he tests and equates an array of feeling to different images with almost mathematical precision… and it’s intensely powerful.
The album is also named after Stratton’s own acoustic guitar, crafted in rosewood, which could be considered well-suited to conveying the complexities of emotion – a crystalline tone but undercut with darkness.
In this way, the album explores depth of feeling; as although the first track ‘Light Blue’ opens with the optimistic, close-knit rhyme of “I remember you, light blue” and quickly plucked acoustic over birdsong – it also highlights how emotions can lure us into a false sense of security. For then the track changes, turned by a strong beat and borne by jangling guitars; he allows the listener to question their comfort. At over four minutes, it certainly is a bold approach to beginning the album.
After all, the listener may be able to sense that this music really is significant for Stratton – as after following extensive cancer treatment, this is sound which seems to say ‘I have experienced hardship, but it doesn’t define me’. The track ‘Thick Skin’ seems to elaborate on this, as with multiple acoustics, you can really hear the effort against the fretboard, accompanied with plashes of piano. The line “Let the skin feel the sun” suggests music borne out of pain, but now basking in beauty – an approach which is moving rather than melodramatic, added to with strings.
The following track ‘Manzanita’ continues in this tone of celebration but at a faster pace, a fitting point in the album and an appropriate nod to the growing energy the largely acoustic music still manages to inspire. It is conveyed through similarly powerful imagery: “The way the river returns to ravine,” a rousing metaphor and moulded to Stratton’s reflection on the aging process over lines like “I love the way that we grow old”. This a welcome approach so often missed in modern music – Stratton takes on universal themes, but in an unabashed way. A careful lyricist carries on into the presentation, with the use of echo especially effective.
A plush flow of acoustics then plunge us into ‘Vanishing Class’, a track which is slightly darker in tone, telling of destruction, lines like “I’ll set it ablaze”, long and emphatic, almost abrupt. Intended to reflect the alienation many people were feeling at the time of the US election, the track’s spiralling strings and juxtaposed lyrics “I’ve got your back honey but my mind won’t stay” tell of uncertainty amidst the language of the everyday. As emphasized, Stratton talks about things that are really affecting us – whether that be mortality, politics, but in an accessible, empathetic way.
Another notable point in the album is the entrance of electric guitar, with good timing on the track ‘Whatever’s Divine’ which provides faster pace to explore a metaphor of desperation: “Tie me to the deck at the centre of the mast”. Unfurling into almost shrilling strings, this is a track which tells of turbulence, more than touching on contemporary emotions of unease and angst.
Compared to the added piano and drum depths of ‘Whatever’s Divine’, the following track ‘I See You’ provides a contrast; notable minimalism. The tone is initially weighted with negativity, the acoustics mournful – imagery such as “the creeper almost done,” seems to speak of a situation of being possessed, picked over. Yet at a juxtaposition – and something Stratton seems particularly talented in, crafting emotive emotional contrast in music and lyrics – is the image of loved one like a bird. The rising line “but I see you flying” takes in the title of the track and shows that symbols of hope can help inspire us on.
Attitudes develop, people progress after all – and that perhaps is part of Stratton’s own hope for his country, communicated through sound. The album, after all, shows a progression of depth with ‘Some Ride’ showing his capacity for exploring vocals whist the contrast of female echo is evocatively matched by an interplay between piano and guitar. It is a track which tells of the potential of balance, whilst the line “All I need is a reason to ride” tells of ongoing energy too.
Some of the tracks on the album could be considered ambitiously long, but Stratton proves that he can pack power into shorter tracks – as ‘Skating the Glass’ proves. His vocals again grace a higher pitch, showing his ability not only as a musician but as a vocalist. Beauty undercut with something darker was the opening consideration of his approach and continues throughout the album – the songs telling of hope in the face of hardship, like “Skating on the glass like it was strong, impatient to be proven wrong”. The tracks can be crafted as anecdotes to situations both political and personal – the questions in America during the pre-Trump era, the questions of one’s own body during illness, the questions of love and hate we ask ourselves.
The final two tracks on the album turn these questions into a kind of blistering, uneasy reflection, as both ‘This is What We Do’ and ‘Ribbons’ shudder with an apocalyptic tone, especially the outlook of the latter with the lines: “The years will take away the need for knowing”. What I would have liked to hear is perhaps even more outcry in the vocals towards the end, the almanac coming to a kind of accumulation. But, then again, perhaps the more reflective ending is the intention – the expression of a voice not resigned but waiting to observe what happens, and waiting for the ripe time to rise again. Emotional, attentive contemporary sound.
Will Stratton’s ‘Rosewood Almanac’ is out now on Bella Union.