Productivity is overrated. Being productive is just a matter of willpower, a parlor trick. True creativity comes with a certain amount of restraint. The Blue Nile has managed to build an unassailable career by being selective about what they record, and even more selective about what they eventually release. The band, which formed and released its first single in 1981, has just gotten around to releasing High, their fourth album, eight full years since the previous one. I fear that the words “eight years” do not do justice for this inconceivable gap. To give the reader some perspective, a 14-year-old who was just beginning high school when Peace at Last was released, would now be fresh out of college in time for High.
Most bands with such long gaps between albums would gradually fade away in the public memory, but the Blue Nile has built a sizable legend thanks to their extended absences. With the band’s limited output, group leader Paul Buchanan throws away far more songs than he keeps, insuring that there is very little in their output that is anything less than revelatory. Then, these songs are given the best possible studio treatment, regardless of how long the process takes. The Blue Nile is, in just about every sense, the antithesis of artists like Lou Barlow or Robert Pollard. For the diehard fan, every Blue Nile album is an event, with the only two possible disappointments being that there are too few songs and too long of a wait for the next one.
These two disappointments are the only major charges that could be held against the band’s latest, High. From the opening repeating piano dirge that opens the heartbreaking “Days of Our Lives” to Buchanan’s last exhortations on the eight-minute plea “Stay Close”, there is not a single wasted moment on the entire album. Often when bands spend too much time refining their material in the studio, the results are drained of emotional immediacy. This will never be a danger for the Blue Nile as the band carefully composes and produces their songs for maximum emotional impact, using the studio to enhance rather than smother the painful core of Buchanan’s songs. If anything, High is a little too emotional, with some of its songs striking chords of despair and emptiness that popular music, particularly well-produced adult pop, rarely addresses.
It is this delicate balance between professionalism, there is a smoothness to their songs that rivals Steely Dan, and the sheer emotional appeal of the songs that makes each Blue Nile album “event listening”. The Blue Nile has been able to survive three decades in a constantly evolving musical landscape without seeming dated by latching onto the most basic, and most often ignored, aspects of the synth-pop scene from which they emerged: the lack of warmth inherent in digital music and synthesizers and the fact that this new form of music was perfectly suited to reflect emotions of alienation and despair. Certainly New Order and Depeche Mode at their peak would use this coldness in a way to directly appeal to a listener’s emotions, but the Blue Nile has been able to escape the “‘80s” ghetto by explicitly appealing to these often uncomfortable emotions.
“Days of Our Lives” opens right with a bleak tale of the boredom and emptiness of life. Most pop music explores the high points of life: love, betrayal, murder, death, redemption, moments of joy, moments of sadness, decadence, celebration, etc. “Days of Our Lives”, and much of the rest of High, focuses on the other ninety percent of life. The 90 percent of life that we will not remember on our deathbeds, the 90 percent of life that we barely notice as it is going on around us. “Days of Our Lives” is about the times when life consists of nothing but going to work and coming back nine hours later and maybe turning on the television but maybe not, and finally going to sleep without really accomplishing anything until waking up to face the next uninspiring day. It is a bitter song to take, only barely redeemed by the next song, the oddly sorrowful love song “I Would Never”. The album gets even bleaker, and, not coincidentally, more beautiful as it progresses. On “High”, Buchanan wonders why we bother to live at all, when, after all, we could take the coward’s way out and “get high” to escape all of this. There is something in the way the band strips life of its many illusions that is powerfully cathartic, with Buchanan’s soulful untrained voice fighting against the impersonal but beautifully skeletal arrangements provided by the band (bassist Robert Bell and keyboardist Paul Joseph Moore). It is as if Buchanan’s vocals are attempting to find something human and beautiful in a seemingly sterile world.
Perhaps the madness in Blue Nile’s method is more than quality control. Both the spaces between albums and the band’s minimalist sound reflect the emptiness of the lives that Buchanan describes. This explains why the fullest production is given to the closing “Stay Close”, which attempts some sort of redemption. On this final track, Buchanan howls for an unnamed figure to “stay close” to him for almost eight minutes in an ambiguous final statement. Has Buchanan found love, or something real and substantive, in this otherwise empty world, or is “Stay Close” a rallying cry of co-dependence? Buchanan’s almost tearful exhortations last far too long to be reassuring that the song’s subject will actually stay. In my view, “Stay Close” is a triumph because the singer is at least able to yearn for something. He is still able to feel. In a world where so much music is aimed to anesthetize, the equivalent of Buchanan’s appeal to “get high” and forget about real life on the album’s title track, High reminds the listener that it is a rare gift just to be able to feel anything. Heck, even better, it manages to deliver this message through a series of catchy and well-produced songs that will reward decades of replay value. Of course, considering the band’s output, they pretty much better withstand some series replay value. Here’s hoping the band is just as good on the follow-up, circa 2012.