Ian McNabb is arguably one of our most talented singer-songwriters. He’s certainly one of the most enduring. From his early eighties Icicle Works chart successes, he has continued to release new music with admirable regularity. These days, he chooses to do so on his own label, selling direct to fans. The fact that the music industry virtually ignores McNabb’s work is somewhat of a mystery to me. His songwriting remains consistently strong. He has an ear for a catchy tune and, on this evidence, is leaning more closely to his rock n roll roots than his early indie/pop days. If this is your thing, you won’t be disappointed. Yet while most of his contemporary’s still receive airplay and media attention, McNabb’s work lies largely below the radar.

Ian McNabb

Utopian is Ian’s 20th studio album. To mark that fact, Utopian is a double album containing twenty tracks, available on vinyl and CD by ordering directly from the man himself.

The release of Utopian completes a trilogy of albums which includes 2017’s Star, Smile, Strong and Our Future in Space, released 2018.

Ian recorded this collection of songs during 2019 and 2020 through the three COVID 19 lockdowns. Peter Buck (REM), Dr Brian Cox, Crazy Horse (Neil Young’s backing band) have all featured on recent McNabb albums. Still, Utopian is nearly all McNabb with vocals and guitars recorded entirely in his home studio. Therefore there are fewer of the collaborations we have heard on other recent releases. The exceptions being bassist Jason Falkner (Jellyfish/Beck), who features three songs, and drummer Nick KIlroe (Echo and the Bunnymen/Icicle Works), who plays on the whole album except for Yolo and Gigolo Days. Drums were recorded at Parr Street, Liverpool.

Ian McNabb makes no secret of his admiration for Neil Young, and through the early tracks of Utopian, this influence is powerful. Even the occasional lead vocal slips into a tone very close to Young’s laconic drone. I normally associate McNabb with a distinctive baritone closer to Scott Walker, and this too is evident. Still, there’s a lighter, more ethereal tone here which is undoubtedly Neil Young influenced. But it’s influence rather than plagiarism and none the worse for it.

On further listening, I can hear four-part harmonies reminiscent of CSNY, Creedence and perhaps America, but there’s more going on here. McNabb may wear some of his influences on his sleeve, but there’s a more complex mix from fifties Billy Fury through The Beatles and “Mersey-beat” of the sixties to Echo and The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes in the eighties. Of course, it’s all Liverpool; it runs through Ian’s music like a slogan in a stick of rock.

Not every track on Utopian grabbed me on first listening. That said, with twenty songs, there are plenty that did and let’s be honest, if you don’t like one, there’ll be another along in a minute (or three). That’s not to say that there are poor songs on the album, far from it. Some are growers.

As I write this, Harry Dean Stanton (track 2) is climbing the Heritage Chart, and the more I hear it, the more it talks to me. As I say, growers.

Jonesin (track 6) is a good old rock n roll that leaps at you out of the speakers. Play that one loud. Yolo (track 9) is an earworm you’ll be humming all day. Gigolo Days (track 12) is another. The gloriously titled; No One Tells Lie Like a Dude With a Tie (track 19) could be a theme song for conspiracy theorists.

At his best, McNabb writes soaring anthems with heart-wrenching lyrics and choruses to die for. There are some gems here and certainly enough to introduce some new fans to Ian’s body of work, but my feeling is that there are tracks that would have benefitted from a bit more sparkle in production to really bring out their strength. To my ears, some still sound like polished demos, but in truth, that’s part of this albums charm.

For those just finding Ian McNabb for the first time, there’s a lot to like here, and it’s certainly worth delving into his back catalogue. There’s plenty to explore.

Ian will finally be back on the road from February to May 2022. A long-awaited and twice postponed tour. Catch him live, and you’ll be pleased you did. I wish the industry would pay him a little more attention.

Utopian can be ordered at www.ianmcnabb.com.

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