Will Stratton is adamant that Gray Lodge Wisdom is not a cancer record. It’s easy to want to believe him, but the lyrical evidence on his fifth LP alludes to the contrary. The highly prolific young songwriter, just 27 years old, wrote and recorded Gray Lodge Wisdom during a year of chemotherapy and surgical treatment for Stage III testicular cancer that had metastasized elsewhere in his body as well.
The first and final tracks of Gray Lodge Wisdom serve as perfect bookends to the record. The opening title track (written in the final days of treatment) raises questions of mortality and liveliness as Stratton begins, “Why sing about death when I just almost died?/ Why sing about life when I’m still alive? / Why sing about God when she don’t exist? / Why sing about love if it’s just a tryst.” And the closing “Fate Song,” which Stratton has mentioned is probably the song most obviously about his illness, concludes, “So I must thank some god that I’m alive today.”
In between, however, Gray Lodge Wisdom calls attention to Stratton’s impressive musicality evocative of Nick Drake or contemporaries like Alexi Murdoch. Stratton’s hammer-on and slide-heavy fingerpicking, paired with experimental chord changes, shines on “Long Live The Hudson River Valley,” with its classic country slide guitar riff, and “The Arrow Darkens,” which could be from a Justin Townes Earle record.
Although the result of incomprehensible struggle, Gray Lodge Wisdom serves as a reminder of youthful optimism and persistence. Its eight songs prove that at the most basic level, vivid storytelling paired with compelling instrumentation are still the stuff good songs are made of.