Album Review: John Nolan – Sad, Strange, Beautiful Dream

imageLet’s start with a couple of disclaimers. I don’t think Taking Back Sunday have ever matched the brilliance of ‘Tell All Your Friends’, and I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face if someone tries to tell me otherwise. Secondly, Straylight Run’s self-titled debut is an under-appreciated classic. I can say with some certainty that ‘The Tension and the Terror’ would get an airing at my wedding and I’d go bonkers – and rightly so as it’s fabulous.

So I’ve got a lot of time for John Nolan. He’s a talented songwriter and has a heck of an ear for melody – and this is reflected throughout ‘Sad, Strange, Beautiful Dream’. In fact, when there’s just your name on the album, there’s no place to hide and your talent has to shine through. The pressure certainly suits Nolan.

Musically, there’s a timelessness to songs such as the opener ‘American Nightclub (1999) ’ or ‘How Much’. There are no gimmicks; if you imagine The Beatles or Fleetwood Mac, then that’s the arena we’re in – classic, well-played pop-rock.

But Nolan’s not one to be inhibited by genre constraints. Throw in a bit of a mid-career Replacements or Soul Asylum after Dave Pirner’s hearing problems (so anything post ‘Hang Time’) and you’ve got a handle on songs such as ‘War Is Peace’ too. Then there’s a Straylight Run style piano ballad (‘I’ll Be Home Soon’) and even a Fun style pop song in the shape of the title track. It’s diverse, engaging and constantly interesting. In less confident hands, it could have been a bit of a mess. Instead, Nolan’s pretty much a natural at everything he turns his hand to and the album flows beautifully as a result.

Lyrically, there are a number of different themes running throughout, covering a range of personal-political, social and intensely autobiographical topics. On every song Nolan’s passion shines brightly, making him a convincing and honest troubadour, although on the odd occasion he drifts into sloganeering, which is annoying. The aforementioned ‘War Is Peace’ is the biggest culprit, especially when compared to ‘It’s The End of The World’ which carries the theme much better without sounding clichéd. It’s a minor gripe though, as I’m sure it’s a blast live, with Nolan leading the throng like a protest rally.

‘Sad, Strange, Beautiful Dream’ is a brisk 41 minutes, culminating in the charming ‘I Will Be Released’. It’s the best of a strong bunch, a folky, mid-tempo sing-along. Again it packs a political and social message, but retains a sense of positivity without forcing the message down your throat. It’s a difficult line to walk, but Nolan succeeds.

The result is an album which shows a different side to a man who you thought you had a handle on. Thematically ‘Sad, Strange, Beautiful Dream’ is a dense and rewarding listen, giving an insight into the issues that make Nolan tick. It might not always work, but if you’re a fan of his other acts, or intelligent, socially-conscious singer songwriters such as Chuck Ragan and Rocky Votolato, then you’ll love ‘Sad, Strange, Beautiful Dream’.


‘Sad, Strange, Beautiful Dream’ by John Nolan is released on July 27th on Collective Confusion.

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Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)

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