Monday, 20 May 2013

Albums for Life: 2 (Part 1): 'Hats': The Blue Nile

I'm not trying to steal a march on you here by publishing this early. It's just that I've got to cram two posts into the time space of one...
No apologies for two albums sharing the number 2 spot.
I always hold these two close even though they're poles apart.
First up is The Blue Nile's exquisitely mournful 'Hats':

A Love Theme for the Wilderness seems a perfect title for the emotional hinterland that The Blue Nile seem to lay claim to, both for adolescents and, particularly, middle aged men. I've leant against many a balding fortysomething quietly weeping into the sleeve of his business suit at a BN gig. This music signifies love and loss; the disappointments of underachievement and the alienation of late night city life... its monochrome, lonesome streets are familiar as those trod much earlier by Frank Sinatra when he articulated a similar obsessive preoccupation with urban detachment and late night ennui frequented 'In the Wee Small Hours'. 
Unrequited love seems key to these songs. I don't hear much genuine engagement. I sense much sexual frustration. Maybe this record should have been sponsored by Kleenex rather than Linn...

In 1985, looking for a follow up to 'A Walk Across the Rooftops' Linn Records had put the Blue Nile into digs near their recording studios. Things didn't go well; the band were unproductive, uninspired, homesick and argumentative:
"We were up against the wall," recalls Paul Buchanan "Living away from home, no money, miserable, getting sued. We were absolutely zonked, the record company weren't pleased and everyone around was starting to think, this record is never going to get made. It was exhausting." 
The band were eventually kicked out of the studio and returned home. They refocused almost immediately, overcoming any threat of writer's block:
"The period when we got bumped out the studio we had nothing else to do, so we packed up and went home. Which is what we should have done in the first place, because when we went back home we reverted to our old routines—practise, play and sit about each other's little flats and talk things through. We should have done that to begin with, really."
With songs written and arrangements put down roughly on a portastudio they eventually reconvened in the same studios in 1988 and worked quickly from there; "we knew exactly what we were doing. We actually recorded the rest of Hats super quick... Honestly, half of Hats was, like, a week." 

The album was released in 1989 to massive critical acclaim.
Yup, a love theme for the wilderness'Hats' was, and remains; a triumph; a soundtrack for melancholics (mainly male I'm sure) who haunt the early hours. 
There's a strange alchemy as Buchanan's richly imperfect tones warm the ice cold synths and programmed drums. He gives passion to the bloodless synth pads that bejewel the songs like rain soaked streets, replacing the robust, clunky, chunky arrangements of their excellent debut with something sonically sublime, smooth and quietly majestic. Wistful trumpets sing out like lonely, lofty lotharios in search of some kind of worldly connection; the word elegiac is much overused regarding music but seems apt here. 
I've heard folk say that the perfect back drop to these songs of estrangement and alienation would be Edward Hopper's empty bars and diners. Clement Greenberg said of Hopper that he was a bad painter; but that, if he'd been a better painter, he wouldn't have been such a great artist. You could say the same for Buchanan. If he was a stronger, better man he surely wouldn't have such a mesmeric artistic presence. The musical hue is suitably subtle and sombre but its light is perfectly cast. The dirth of real instruments somehow makes the voice more humane. 
There's a mournful majesty to the melancholy that, for me, is unmatched in modern music. 

Excuse the many quotes but Buchanan's pained presence is central to the heartache. "Close your eyes, can't you see. Only love will survive. I love you." The search for connection is unrelenting. 'Where is the love? I need love to be true'. That vulnerable voice is always searching for something better; walking streets where 'all the rainy pavements lead to you... He's up, he's down, he's up again. His defeats and little victories aren't pathetic, but heroic in their pathos. 'Tomorrow I will be there, just you wait and see... It will be alright'. Helplessly hopefully, the challenges of daily life are simply stated; "Working night and day I try to get ahead'. The downtown lights and empty streets offer diversion, 'Baby, baby, let's go out tonight'. There's always a possibility of connection, but will it be recognized? 'How do I know you feel it?' There's cold comfort in the companionship; disappointments and infidelities are inevitable. 'Who do you love? Who do you really love?". If the city fails you there's always a promise of escape or the comfort of home. Somewhere 'over the hillside'. 'I know a place... where everything's alright'. There's not a lot of starlight on this album, Buchanan had yet to pack that suitcase. Relief or release is seldom realized but it's often alluded to; there's always an empty train or a ferry to 'carry us away into the air'. But redemption is always just out of reach. And then... just when everything seems bleak and black 'headlights on the parade light up the way'. But there's no escaping the grim realities. "I'm tired of crying on the stairs'. No escaping until, of course, the next Saturday night when 'an ordinary girl can make the world alright..." That resolve on 'Saturday Night' is the album's centre piece. That's when my shoulders start to shake. 

There's no fool like an old fool; what makes our crumpled hero so recognizable and righteous is his resilience; his ability to dust himself off and give things another go. Maybe (like me) he's blessed with a bad memory. His moods are as transient as his memory, his glimpses of happiness ephemeral, he survives by moving from one moment to the next. His vulnerability makes for his humanity. We recognize and empathize with his daily dilemma; the disappointments, the dashed dreams. The nameless girl he kisses goodnight is surely looking over his shoulder for something better. And, as much as he remains ever hopeful, the light at the end of his tunnel is probably another trainload of missed opportunity...
There will be no musical clips from here on in...
If you don't own 'Hats' I suggest that you get the recently remastered version here.
This is the ultimate in late night mood music, music made to wallow in. 
The only company you should rely on is the spirit of Frank; that obligatory bottle of single malt...


  1. top post but got to pick you up on "clunky chunky arrangements of their debut" !

    1. There is a definite smoothing out of things for the follow up David. It wasn't meant as a criticism but can see that it reads as one. Might need an edit. The debut had all of those wonderfully robust, intrusive bass lines. The lack of 'flow' was surely part of the plan, part of that music's tension. 'Hats' flows.
      There's no dissonance. There is no: tension/release...
      The most miserably magnificent 'Easy Listening' record ever?

    2. Silver-tongued devil... I knew you'd provoke a rebuttal with the clunky, chunky remark. Talked your way out of a corner nicely!

    3. I believe it's called the 'Dan Quaile Defense TT; talk about 'tension/release'...
      You paint yourself into a corner and then mutter the immortal lines:
      "When your back's against the wall... you turn around and fight."

    4. Ha! That's hilarious. I had to Google more Quayleisms. He's got some beauties. Sadly, Dan can't take credit for that gem. It was actually one of your fine compatriots... John Major. Makes you feel proud, doesn't it?

    5. No way! John Major? I shall be singing the National Anthem all day...

  2. I have this but it never really clicked. I like it but it hasn't gone beyond that. I guessed this was coming, though, and have chalked it for some serious listening. Too many people love it who share a lot of my tastes.

  3. Give it another go.
    It justifies the dram Seamus.

  4. Get all your favorite alcoholic drinks at Duty Free Depot!

    All the popular brand name beverages for unbelievable discounted price tags.