Stuart Blance is a talented and thoughtful singer-songwriter from Perth, Scotland. (He also happens to be a terrific landscape and events photographer.) He’s been writing and recording songs since 1999, and in 2001 he released his debut CD Utopia, an ambitious work featuring 13 tracks covering genres ranging from folk and Americana to pop and rock. In the years since, he has performed in venues throughout Scotland and also in London, and recorded several singles, three of which are included on his 2018 EP On Your Side. Given the renewed interest in his music, Stuart felt the time was right for Utopia to be heard again, and so the album was re-released in digital form in December 2018, and I have the pleasure of reviewing it today. The songs all sound as fresh and relevant now as they did when they were recorded nearly two decades ago.
Stuart’s engaging music style is characterized primarily by gently-strummed acoustic guitar, often accompanied by percussive synths and occasional subtle bass notes. His contemplative lyrics touch on oft-covered subjects of life, humanity, heartache and pain, with the goal of sharing uplifting messages of hope and optimism. This is clear on the opening track “Lifeline“, where he urges us to stay true to ourselves in finding our way forward in life: “You’ve got it all, don’t throw your life away. And you’ll see where your path lies. Just follow your lifeline. The future lies ahead, it’s yours to keep.” So too on the title track “Utopia” a pleasant folk song where he extols the virtues of positive thinking and striving to be a good person: “You may be a dreamer, seeing good when it’s not there. Or maybe a believer in being kind and fair. Even if you’re feeling low, always try and smile.” And on Burnout“, he gently advises us to not push ourselves to the breaking point: “Slow down, take a short break. Just take your time. Enjoy the ride. You’re heading for a burnout.”
Several of the tracks on Utopia are really lovely and deeply moving. One of my favorites is “Memories“, a beautiful song with strummed guitar and delicate atmospheric synths that create a haunting, yet enthralling soundscape for Stuart’s calm, soothing vocals. He wistfully sings about revisiting past experiences that shaped his life: “Memories keep flooding back. Creeping into places that I haven’t been to in quite a while. Diaries kept for years on end. Words unheard for decades. Untold secrets brought to life. Oh I feel so at ease about these old memories. Won’t you please reminisce with me about these old memories?”
Another favorite is “Slower Than the Flow“, a languid, hymn-like song in which he asks compelling questions for which simple answers continue to elude us: “Why do people go through life with their eyes closed? Why so many people without homes? Why can’t we take some time to look around us? Spare a thought and show someone you care. / Why must we fight like little children? Why must it always end in tears? Why is the root of violence in religion? When will the stigma disappear?”
On the amusing “Fact or Folklore“, Stuart playfully ponders a number of fairy tale myths with droll satire: “Did Jack climb his beanstock, was Goldilocks so pure? She slept with the three bears, then went back for more. / Did Humpty Dumpty fall? I heard at first they shot him, then kicked him off the wall. / Climb over the rainbow, we’ll meet the Wicked Witch. She thinks that she’s scary, but she’s a stupid bitch.” And yet another personal favorite is “Anytime“, one of the most interesting tracks on the album from a music standpoint, and also the longest, clocking in at six minutes. The song opens with fluttering spacey synths which gradually fade into the background as Stuart’s pleasing layered acoustic guitar notes and smooth vocals enter the mix. The synths return to the forefront as the guitars fade, and continue through to the end as the song closes on a mysterious and atmospheric air.
Stuart switches gears in a big way on the final two tracks, replacing his laid-back folk persona with a punk-rock alter-ego. “Groovy People” is a simple but fun tune about partying with cool people in a hot club, delivered with chugging riffs of fuzzy guitars and a rousing drumbeat. Stuart’s vocals sound completely different here, with a bit of an early David Bowie twang. Even better is “Comin’ On Up“, where he really lets loose with hard-driving riffs of gnarly guitar and buzzing bass, set to a heavy thumping drumbeat. I really love this track, and want to hear more of this side of him! Some might feel these last two tracks don’t belong on what is otherwise an acoustic folk album, but I think it’s perfectly fine, and makes for a great, upbeat ending to an excellent work.