Classic rock listeners need no introduction to the late Ian McLagan, a superlative sideman whose electric piano repeatedly stole the spotlight from Rod Stewart on such hits as “Stay with Me.” Although McLagan’s new album United States certainly showcases his impressive keyboard prowess, veteran producer Glyn Johns (who, like McLagan, has worked for both The Rolling Stones and The Who) makes certain that the instrumentation never crowds out the vocals. McLagan’s voice invites pleasant comparison to the pipes of his former band-mate Rod Stewart, weathered just as sweetly and with an agreeable hint of age, like the sonic equivalent of creases in well-worn leather.
Nowhere is this character displayed more melodiously than on “Love Letter,” a gentle lament about the forgotten art of romantic communication. The song is so infectious and poppy, it could easily be mistaken for the work of McLagan’s current label-mate Nick Lowe, and in a perfect world it would already be a radio sensation. Most of United States focuses on the joys and dramas of relationships, from the disc-opening “All I Wanna Do” (essentially about slumber lumber) to the finale of “He’s Not for You” (one of several tracks critical of a lady’s choice in partners). It would be easy to mistake this album for a collection of shallow compositions inspired by little more than lust and envy, but there’s something much deeper at work here.
In late 2006, McLagan’s beloved wife of nearly 30 years, Kim Kerrigan, died in a Texas traffic accident. McLagan was absolutely devoted to her and, still devastated by her loss eight years later, spoke to the media with heartbreaking candor about the guilt and difficulty he experienced trying to move forward and seek new love. (“I just want the hugs, the kisses,” he observed in a recent Salon interview.) Seen in that light, lyrics such as “I can’t sleep alone, I tried/I wake up crying for you” (from “I’m Your Baby Now”) take on a deeply touching quality. “Love Letter” reads with richer meaning, especially such lines as, “I’d send you a love letter/But I can’t find you anywhere.”
McLagan himself passed away unexpectedly on December 3rd, on the eve of a Christmas tour with Lowe. His official cause of death was a stroke, but it might as well have been a broken heart. Either way, the little guy is back with Kim again now; and as his swan song, United States emerges as a profound gem, enjoyably serving seasoned personal insights from a perspective rarely reflected in pop music.
Ian McLagan & The Bump Band