Heart and soul and synthesizers.
The first two Blue Nile albums have a similar haunting quality that shows no sign of becoming dated. For those of us who lived there at the time, they are also a welcome reminder that there was more to 1980s Britain than very bad haircuts and the brutally awful Thatcher government.
In the early 1980s I was burned out on listening to music, tired of the predictable format of gigs, and had sold all my records except for Slates by The Fall, The Alchemist by Home, and a box of assorted glam-rock, reggae, and pop 45s. I stopped listening to music altogether, even avoiding pubs with a jukebox unless it was half an hour until closing and there was no choice. After several months I turned the radio on one night and John Peel was playing his usual amazing high-quality variety. After a few minutes The Blue Nile's "Tinseltown in The Rain" came on and amidst the bubbling synths, funky rhythm and vivid lyrics I felt as excited as if I had been transported into the orgiastic scenes at the end of Leonard Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers.
Their album A Walk Across the Rooftops proved to be perfect for someone almost seeking to relearn the art of listening to music; perhaps because it seemed to have been made by people who were in the early stages of learning how to make miraculous music from simple building blocks. This was a necessity as none of the members were trained musicians, but the resulting album of very simple, carefully constructed compositions proved far greater than the sum of its parts. The backing to many of the songs is sparse and arguably monochrome, but the foil to this is Paul Buchanan's singing: restrained at times, yet unbridled and naked in terms of showing emotion and pain. The title track, as well as "Rags to Riches" and "Automobile Noise" perfectly contrasts that voice with a bleak, rhythmic, synthesized backdrop. "Easter Parade" has even less in it yet was picked by some as the standout track. The pleading sway of "Stay" and the balmy hum of "Heatwave" are welcome lighter pieces before the record ends back in the dazzling weariness and solemnity of "Automobile Noise".
The album was originally released by an electronics company, Linn, who formed a record company for that very purpose, and to highlight the audio quality of their equipment. It was not much of a hit, but gradually critical acclaim began to build: I'm sure I heard Phil Collins on BBC radio pick "Easter Parade" as one of his eight Desert Island discs. By the time Hats came out, in 1989, a bigger audience had slowly come into being meaning it was hugely anticipated, raved about in reviews, and it did not disappoint.
I recall reviews of Hats at the time saying that The Blue Nile had taken five years to follow up their great debut and had then done so with an album which sounded exactly like the first one! This was a good way of saying that quality control had been maintained but in fact Hats sounded richer, fuller, more layered and produced than its predecessor. To some extent that fullness can be depicted as a switch from monochrome to color - as long as we accept that the only colors which may be used are various shades of blue and black. I think there is less variety in Hats but only in the sense that, say, Astral Weeks sounds similar from one track to the next. The familiar themes of isolation, the quest for love, and the accepting and transcending of surroundings are again depicted within familiar aspects of an urban landscape such as cars, trains, lights, streets and so on.
Even the frustrations, perhaps of romance or maybe of wider permanent self-acceptance and illustrated by the lyric “Stop/Go/Stop/Go” suggest automobile traffic as much as human pedestrians. Hats sold better in the UK than A Walk... and in the US A&M records used a toll-free number in an ad to give away free copies (although presumably home-taping was still killing music). No production values could hope to distract from Buchanan's voice, though, the anguish and sadness being impossible to conceal or disguise. The album has some excellent uptempo moments such as "Headlights on The Parade" when all the yearning seems to reach a joyful crescendo of sorts, but it must be said that anyone who wants a record which provides a pretty unrelenting opportunity to really wallow in gorgeous, sublime, melancholy should dive into this one. Things arguably get a bit out of balance on "Let's Go Out Tonight" where the sluggish pace and mournfulness seem to contradict the title - and no one in their right mind would wish to go out with Buchanan in that state. He sounds morose to the point of being incapable of even getting his round in.
For all the crafted grandeur of their second album it should be said that by the end of Hats salvation appears in the form of an "ordinary girl" rather like the bird-like creature in Joyce's Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man. Someone who can "make the world alright" no superwoman or exotic creature needing to be pursued or attained, by gum.
These expanded remastered reissues include remixes, live takes, and unreleased songs on separate second discs. I am so familiar with every note on both of the original albums that the additional tracks seem superfluous, just plain wrong; or at the very least an understandably mixed bag. The group's earliest piece "I Love This Life" written in 1981 is included and a couple of b-sides "Regret" and "The Wires Are Down" from singles are included but completists will wonder why "Saddle The Horses" (the b-side of "Stay") is missing. Other non-album tracks such as "The Second Act" are interesting but one in particular "Christmas" is appalling and demonstrates just how easy it would have been for The Blue Nile to have got things badly wrong, bland, over-the-top, or as tacky as Christian Rock. Indeed, on the strength of third album Peace At Last (the title track of which is pretty magnificent in it’s own gospel-tinged way) I have avoided the fourth album High and Buchanan's solo album. I prefer to remember the superb achievement by a group of non-traditional musicians in a virtual cottage-industry setting - creating a record with the visceral thrust and enduring charm of A Walk Across The Rooftops and then managing the impossible task of following it with album just as full of heart and soul.
Some wag on youtube has matched The Blue Nile to images from Blade Runner and also from the art of Edward Hopper - both studies in urban isolation and existential loneliness. The group used synthesizers for these two albums and it is easy to forget a time when these were viewed as showing android/machine/human boundaries and values or as a prediction of a future music without guitars or musical expertise. Judge for yourself where the musical future has gone in the past two decades but on the basis of these records The Blue Nile can never be accused of lacking either feeling or expertise.