As far as wee small hours albums go, Paul Buchanan’s Mid Air is instant canon material. The album has a greater air of kitchen table contemplation than pacing, anxiety-wracked insomnia; the 14 songs on this 36 minute album come and go like fluidly passing thoughts. Due to the brevity of the tracks and Mid Air’s overwhelming quiet, it is fair to suspect this album will leave no traces after it ends. Those who actually believe that, however, are truly underestimating Buchanan’s songwriting faculties.
It is somewhat startling to learn that Buchanan devised Mid Air’s songs while trying to create some music for Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson’s eventual solo album. Knowing Buchanan’s place in United Kingdom pop history – his well loved band, the Blue Nile, had a minor hit with the single “Tinseltown in the Rain” – makes such news a little more fitting. Still, Buchanan was wise to hold on to these simple, elegant songs, buoyed largely by piano and occasionally by some appropriate strings and, on closer “After Dark”, a lone trumpet.
Mid Air flows like few albums in recent memory. There doesn’t appear to be a beginning, middle, or end, and I have on more than one occasion let the album replay without realizing it. As songs become more familiar, highlights drift to the surface. “Buy a Motor Car” could maybe be considered the closest Mid Air gets to having a center piece, because it is there that Buchanan’s voice feels at its peak in terms of heartache and drama. His delivery on it is complimented two songs later in “Two Children”; Buchanan sounds weary yet indebted, the perfect tone to use when your song’s final couplet is “Ask me if I am grateful / Watch as I fall down to my knees.” In songs such as “Cars in the Garden” and “Newsroom”, Buchanan works his way through several intricate vocal melodies, never allowing any to come close to outstaying its welcome. Such subtlety and conciseness is something most songwriters today should want to kill for.
A limited edition version of Mid Air is also available, featuring a bonus disc of three extra songs, a live cut of album track “Half the World”, and instrumental takes on a few others. “Have You Ever Been Lonely?” would have been right at home on the proper album and, due to Mid Air’s quick running time, would not have made the proceedings feel overstuffed. It may be a good thing that this limited edition will not be re-pressed, as Mid Air almost demands to be heard on its lonesome, where “what if” applies only to the original album’s content and not what outlying material may sound like. Although another Blue Nile album is something that may never be – the trio hasn’t released any new material since 2004’s High – on Mid Air Buchanan has consoled us with signature world-weary comfort and has done so finely.