Music: Will Stenberg

Will Stenberg is, in a completely contemporary way, a Country & Western musician. His songs conjure loneliness and the longing for heroism, those feelings merging like they do in Cormac McCarthy’s prose. He’s not peddling nostalgia, either. These aren’t songs about horses or herding cattle. Instead of describing a physical frontier, Will writes about time, capturing the havoc of years and the ironies of survival. To hear him tell it, surviving is as much a matter of good luck as anything. In most of his songs, Will effaces himself, committing to the stories of people who didn’t get lucky. They’re dead, or wounded, or gone. We only know he’s still around because he’s getting it all down on tape.

The best analogy I can give you is that Will often reminds me of Neil Young. In a sense, all of Young’s best songs are versions of his early classic “Helpless.” Songs like “Broken Arrow,” “My My Hey Hey,” or “The Needle and the Damage Done” are confessions of helplessness, in which Young watches people destroying themselves. Since Young mostly cannot save them, all he can do is make an offering of loving anger in their name. Will does the same on songs like “You Are Not The Sun” and “Hospital.” “You Are Not The Sun” is him at both his angriest and his most hopeful. Unable to remain silent, he makes an overdue pitch for sanity to a friend who has gotten lost in addiction and delusion. The music builds along with the tension. A little ways into the song, the snares come in clear and bracing, loud as a Souza march. What begins as a speech builds into an anthem, catching the listener up in its fury. Yet “You Are Not The Sun” is not angry at the core. It is almost religious in its fiery plea for redemption, and in believing that we can help someone find their way to it. In “Hospital,” it is too late, so Will changes gears. He howls, “I never thought you would die in the hospital,” letting the fuzz and bleed of the guitars carry off some of his ache.

There is nothing tentative or amateurish about this music. It has been polished by years playing little gigs in anonymous bars, as well as by Will’s dedication to craft. He can quote from all sorts of records and he does: his vocals, for instance, go all the way from a Wilco falsetto to the roughness of punk, sometimes in the same song. 2011 saw so many artists leap onto the scene already fully formed, from the soul music of the Weeknd, to the emo of Youth Lagoon…Will is one of that company, not in terms of genre, but in terms of his aesthetic mastery. He’s already got a coherent and evocative sound, and the most distinctive element is his pacing. These are steady songs, quiet and strong — so vital, in fact, that although many of them could be labeled ballads, none feels like one. On most tracks, his band sings harmony on the chorus. He’s left a little roughness in every time, and the harmonies feel natural. It’s the sound of people singing together at work, around a fire, or when they’re on the march. It is not only pleasing, it is unmistakably political as well.

Will’s songwriting is literary in the best sense, full of the kinds of little details we remember without understanding why. On his funniest track to date, “Alice, Ingrid, Meghan, and Betty,” Will playfully makes sketch after sketch of some women he hasn’t forgotten. He recalls Alice “smiling like a cheerleader whose boyfriend just made the team.” He tells Meghan “you’re so maudlin but you have a right to be,” because “Your mother loved you sometimes — your dad, intermittently.” Because they are so detailed and so personal, the songs are akin to open letters. Like Leonard Cohen signing off with “Sincerely, L. Cohen,” or “That’s all, I don’t think of you that often,” Will knows there’s a chance he’ll hear something back, good or bad, and he’s ready.

The most overtly “literary” song he’s recorded, “Raymond Carver’s Eyes,” shows Will being as confident with words as he is with his sound. It’s risky to show your influences, and even more risky to put them front and center. The song works, though, because Carver’s not exactly the hero. His burning gaze is relentless, merciless. “Raymond Carver’s Eyes” is a companion piece of sorts to “You Are Not The Sun,” offering a counterpoint. Will tests the limits of what truths we can actually bear — truth, in a desert, can be cruel. In the final verse about a brutal drinker, the lingering question is one of concern: “Where is he now?” Will is not, ultimately, intent upon reforming the people he has known. He wants above all to remember them. In “Alice, Ingrid, Meghan, and Betty” he sings: “Lots of stars are falling / some fall in the sea.” Will’s gone searching for those fallen ones, honoring them with songs about what it takes to stay alive.


I’ve posted a reflection on this over at Cowbird.

Some of the tracks featured in the review are below (the title appears if you click the little “info” button). You can find Will at his website, and on Twitter as well. Sixteen Seasons by the Kerosene Kondors, including the song “Hospital,” is available through Spotify.

The final studio version of “You Are Not The Sun” is still in progress. In the meantime, an early version is available on Will’s ReverbNation page.