The Blue Nile Flows At Its Own Pace
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Some artists touch us in the most extraordinary, unspoken ways. They craft their art almost unconsciously — making it look so easy — and while others merely reach out and titillate our glands, these rare artists reach out and massage the very muscle of our hearts. They transport us through all the barriers of politics, genres and all forms of identity to touch souls.
It is here I will claim that Paul Buchanan — leader of a Scottish pop trio you've probably never heard of, the Blue Nile — is such an artist. I will not go about this objectively. I can't; I love his work too much. For those who amuse us with complaints about biased reviews (duh), I am hereby laying my biases upon the table. Buchanan's songs are the perfect balance between the melodic and the rhythmic, the spiritual and the physical, and I adore them.
The Blue Nile has made three records in 12 years. That's 24 songs (none of them hits), an average of two a year — not exactly career momentum. After the debut record, “A Walk Across the Rooftops,'' appeared on A&M Records in 1984, fans of the album couldn't wait to hear what this band would do next. But wait they did.
It took the Blue Nile five years to deliver the follow-up, the critically acclaimed “Hats.''
A fierce legal battle to free the band from a bad contract kept fans waiting another seven years for the third disc, “Peace at Last,'' which was released last month by Warner Bros. Still, the sound on “Peace at Last'' is so immediate and accessible, it's as if the band had been there all along.
In a recent interview, Buchanan explained the band's anti-commercial pace.
“After the first record, if we'd gone right back to work like others, we'd have made the next record in due course, but we weren't ready. We were insecure and we thrashed about for a while. We finally summoned the courage to play again for anyone who was still listening,'' he said.
“I hope people don't think we're lying about in a swimming pool doing take after take after take. Nothing could be further from the truth. We got so caught up in the promoting and traveling and the one thing we overlooked was finding the time to go home at night and play the piano and let a song develop. We literally got off the plane one day and were told we'd be in the studio the next day.
“We stoically went along with that for a while, but that's like putting a flower in a dark room and screaming at it to grow instead of giving it light and water and nurturing it.''
The new record turns to the acoustic guitar to prop up Buchanan's muted, ecstatic yearnings. The first record was a haunted, delicate clamor of eerie sounds — trumpet, guitars and keyboards — and every song is an excellent example of the value of space in a composition. “Hats'' carried forth the exact same lyrical imagery and emotional approach. There is nary a live instrument on the album, but seldom has studio technology been used to such a warm and personal effect.
For “Peace at Last,'' Buchanan strived to maintain the music's sophistication and bring more live instruments into the mix. The result is a balance of all that is phenomenal about both previous albums.
“I wanted to use wooden things. I wanted it to be a warm recording. I wanted to undo some of the notions about us,'' Buchanan said. “I felt mislabeled as being intellectual or cerebral or something like that. It isn't true for us at all. I wanted these songs to stand on their roots.''
The writing off of the Blue Nile as music for intellectuals is a bit of a farce. Buchanan's manipulation of empty space instead of 24 tracks of backing vocals, strings and atmospheric synthesizers sets sometimes sets a stark mood, and starkness is not a favorite aspect of mainstream culture. His lyrics rarely venture into anything intellectual. The joy of the first album is Buchanan's soul-less tenor crying out phrases like “I am in love'' and “Yes! I love you'' with youthful thrill.
There are no manifestos on Blue Nile records, only gushing emotions fresh from the end of a humbly tailored sleeve.
“Happiness,'' the opener to “Peace at Last'' features a simple theme, “Now that I've found peace at last / tell me Jesus / will it last?'' followed by another smooth Buchanan falsetto moment of glee: “It's only love!'' By the time the choir comes in, your eyes have closed and you've already been transported to a better place.
“If someone responds in that way, it's because we have those feelings and assume others have those feelings, too,'' Buchanan said. “Our job is regarded as recreating those feelings but not attracting attention to ourselves doing so. We trusted there are people out there who would react if we did something honestly . . . There's no angle here, no ulterior motive. We're not here to get a Cadillac.
“I don't want to sound pretentious. I just think the songs are true, and if they're true, the people will recognize it.''
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.