‘We just sculpted away together’
The Blue Nile – an imaginary compilation album
A GUEST POSTING by COMRADE COLIN
The thing about The Blue Nile, it is true, they are either in your blood or they aren’t. Everyone finds their own way to this band, somehow, whether it is to adore them or ignore them. Our resident host, JC, is very much in the latter camp, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, but fully respect. And this is, of course, the sheer joy of music… the varied responses we have to the sounds we hear, the stories we are told by the musicians we hold dear to us. For myself, the music and the words of Paul Buchanan, P.J. Moore and Robert Bell are almost part of my DNA now. I couldn’t walk away from their music even if I wanted to. It is a life soundtrack, to be sure.
This is a much-delayed ICA. I’ve had the ten tracks in my mind, in my ears, for quite a while now, ever since I first mentioned to JC that I might scribble some notes about The Blue Nile and what a ‘top ten’ might look like for an imaginary compilation album. The final selections were put together as a Spotify playlist, going around my head when out walking in Glasgow, usually from east to west and back again. For this is also true, the geography, the people, the places of this city feature prominently in the patterns and themes The Blue Nile make (I will not say ‘soundscapes’). Paul Buchanan, as the lyricist and singer of the band, is an observer of fine details, of small moments, of feelings that we all notice. He trusts in the little things, because they matter. The delay in sending this memo to JC, in part, is due to my own reluctance to share and let it go, wondering how he will react. He can be pithy, to be diplomatic, about the bands he just doesn’t see value in.
This is true, everyone finds their own way to this band. It is worth repeating. The tiny, stolen moments you remember, in a fuzzy and distant haze now. One moment for me was when I first heard ‘Tinseltown in the rain’ in a student union bar in Paisley in 1988 and being unable to stop myself heading to the dance floor. Even as a committed goth, I just couldn’t resist the lure of that bassline. It just sounded so big and full of itself, all of it. Another moment was playing ‘From a late night train’ on a Sony Walkman loop after yet another doomed romance, heading back on the West Coast line from Glasgow from London in 1991. The despair and sadness was all too real, you sometimes need to dive deep into a song like that, just to survive. Then there was a fateful New Year early morning, back in 2007, drinking champagne from the bottle, spinning around the room, reflecting on the reality of the line “just separate chairs in separate rooms” from ‘Family Life’. You know it is time to flee, to accept a divorced defeat.
It is a part of you. The Blue Nile, you see, are a life as a soundtrack, the details and the moments you will come to remember.
The methodological design for this ICA, a bit like the one I authored for Talk Talk a few years ago, is to keep it simple: stick to the albums, keep it to ten tracks. With only four studio albums to choose from, I’ve decided to pick 3 tracks each from ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’ (1984) and ‘Hats’ (1989), with a further 2 tracks each from ‘Peace at Last’ (1996) and ‘High’ (2004). This seems fair, although I was seriously tempted to include two of my favourite non-album tracks, ‘Regret’ and ‘Wish me Well’. Why make it even harder though?
This is also true, you will all have your own ideas on what tracks to include or sideline, how the running order should be. Below, I will include a short justification for each track. To those of you who know these moments, this music, well, you will appreciate the impossibility of this task. I beg your forgiveness. To those of you who know little of The Blue Nile, I would just ask you to take an hour or so and listen closely, perhaps late at night with headphones attached. Just try to welcome the space and the details, the moments and the feelings that are created here. You will either adore them or ignore them, but make of it what you will, it is your choice.
A rather obvious beginning, track 1 of side A on the first album ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’. The early promise of what would follow. The bassline, the electronics, a vocal that stretches out. A show of faith from Linn. It still feels like the start of a new day, or the end of a long night… ‘I leave the redstone building’.
Although it might be argued that ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ is The Blue Nile defined, I’d make the case for this track playing that role. A headline single from the second album, ‘Hats’, it captures those nervous and fleeting moments from an initial night out. Plaintive, but hopeful. The dichotomies clearly mean something, looking over… ‘chimney tops and rooftops’.
A leap forward to the final album, ‘High’, and how it begins. Track 1 of side A. Some incredible electronics from P. J. Moore and a matured, observed outlook on a life lived in reverse. A metropolitan statement of where you are, what’s around us. The search for… ‘an ordinary miracle, you and me’.
Back to ‘Hats’ for the perfect example of what Paul Buchanan’s lyrics and a piano can conjure up. A quiet layer of sympathetic synths and a solitary trumpet offer some accompaniment. The heartbreak spacing and the four-minute sparseness make this a uniquely haunting and sad song, trying not to let go… ‘I know it’s over, but I love you so’.
A complete change in tempo, if not mood, a track taken from the ‘American album’ as it was known, ‘Peace at Last’. For this stage in the journey, it seemed to be about settlement, adulthood, accepting the facts of middle age. And yet, there is that underlying sense of discomfort and unease… ‘it feels like a movie’.
A track like this… I mean, how could it not be included? A big opening for side B, running to 6 minutes in length. Back to the debut album, it feels like a timeless journey across the city. A love letter to Glasgow? Perhaps it is. Those soaring synths give it a skyline drama, the bassline rooting it to the landed Clyde geography. We all have a version of tinseltown… ‘a place to always feel this way’.
The American album, ‘Peace at Last’, and the final record, ‘High’, deserve far more attention than they usually tend to receive from fans of The Blue Nile. This song is a case in point, featuring some of Paul Buchanan’s finest lyrics, I’d suggest. The influences shine through, via the Midwest and the South, but we retain our ordinary lives… ‘it feels like Memphis, after Elvis, there’s nothing going on’.
As with ‘From a late night train’, this is a song that is born of vocal, piano and so much texture and space. There is a fine wash over of hidden synths. The piano keystrokes meet the author’s hesitant breaths, matching the gradual intonation that is dared. There is a fragility here that is like a fine china waiting to be broken. Just a beautiful serenade from the debut album, ‘a city perfect in every detail’.
A song from ‘Peace at Last’ that is almost impossible to listen to if you have the memories and scars of a broken family, a painful divorce, the end of something unique. Every word is there for a reason. I saw the band perform this live one time, at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, and even Paul Buchanan had to wipe tears from his eyes at the end. It’s about the fine details that appear in the images, again… ‘silver on the window, like the bike I once had at home in the yard’.
The perfect ending, I think, for this ICA. Back to a delicate track from ‘Hats’ that showcases the vocal range of Paul Buchanan. Some of those notes you wonder if he will make. But he does. An arrangement that, yet again, let’s the vocals take centre stage. A beautiful guitar part, a reflection on issues of communication, misunderstanding, trying to find hope… ‘I know a place, where everything’s alright…’.