Glasgow’s unique but extremely slow-moving (four albums in 20 years!) Blue Nile has a wealth of creative depth, building atmosphere with lots of empty space and carefully controlled conflicting musical maneuvers. The title track of the trio’s first album mixes strings, horns, drum and bass with a meandering, disjunct vocal for something like a blend of Robert Wyatt, Joni Mitchell and John Cale. Although A Walk Across the Rooftops isn’t easy to love, at its most accessible point (“Stay,” which actually has a chorus and more of a verse melody than the others), it’s quite appealing.
Hats was five years in the making, but the band’s relentless perfectionism paid off: the seven songs are as dense and moving as a midnight sky. With sweeping synths and the pristine click of electronic percussion, “The Downtown Lights” and “Over the Hillside” are moody like film music, while “From a Late Night Train” and “Saturday Night” are impressionistic vignettes that creep along in slow motion. There’s hardly a guitar or live drum to be heard, but seldom has studio technology been used to such warm and personal results.
A vast seven-year gap yawned between the Blue Nile’s second and third albums. During that time (part of which was devoted to the lengthy process of securing a new record deal), the perfectionists’ only visible activities were one tour and three collaborations. They recorded a cover of Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” on Clannad vocalist Màire Brennan’s Misty Eyed Adventures, a live British B-side with Rickie Lee Jones, and “The Gift,” a song the threesome co-wrote with Annie Lennox for her Diva album; Lennox certified her satisfaction by including the Blue Nile’s “Downtown Lights” on her Medusa collection.
Recorded (somewhat tellingly) in Los Angeles, Peace at Last is by far the atmospheric group’s most diverse, accessible and fully realized work. Generally more upbeat and conventional than the first two, the album uses vastly different instrumentation — acoustic guitars, strings, even a gospel choir on “Happiness” — yet retains the group’s distinctive melancholy, panoramic feel. The pop ideas explored rather clumsily on Hats are infinitely more assured here; while the horn-speckled “Sentimental Man” summons fearsome visions of Phil Collins, “Body and Soul” slithers brilliantly on- and off-beat, showing how thoroughly the group has managed to integrate groove into its sound. Although the unmistakable whiff of centrist tendencies imbues the proceedings — there’s even a lump-in-the-throat Christmas ballad called “Family Life” — Peace at Last is a natural and dramatic progression.
Between Blue Nile releases, frontman Paul Buchanan lent his distinctive vocals to several outside projects, including Peter Gabriel’s OVO, smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti’s Midnight Without You and composer Craig Armstrong’s The Space Between Us.
After another eight-year pause, the Blue Nile finally returned with High, abandoning the more organic trappings of Peace at Last in favor of the lush, synthesized feel of Hats. High is the first Blue Nile album that makes no significant stylistic advance over its predecessors but the best moments are true to the band’s essential qualities. (The lesser moments suggest its signature sound could ossify into formula.) Buchanan’s characteristically bittersweet lyrics return to familiar themes: the drudgery of the workaday world and relationships both good and bad. “Because of Toledo” stands out in part due to an arrangement that is little more than acoustic guitar and Buchanan’s voice. “Broken Loves” deftly delineates a difficult father/son relationship while expending a fair amount of musical energy running in place. “She Saw the World” and “Everybody Else” make more focused use of that energy. “I Would Never” and “Days of Our Lives” recapture the languid grace of earlier songs like “Over the Hillside.” But the title track’s lyrical search for transcendence is undercut by a prosaic chorus.
“I Would Never” was released as a CD single, with cover art depicting three straw hats. The single adds two tracks that predate A Walk Across the Rooftops. “I Love This Life” brims with youthful enthusiasm in strong contrast to the often complicated grown-up concerns of their later work. “The Second Act,” an early B-side previously unreleased on CD, shows a developing band that hasn’t quite arrived at its signature sound.
Since the release of High, Buchanan has continued to collaborate with other musicians: he sang on Aqualung’s Memory Man album and co-wrote a song on the 2010 Magnetic North release. His vocals are also featured on “Sleep” from Texas’ 2006 Red Book album.
Buchanan returned in 2012 with Mid Air, a solo album of elegiac ballads. While many of these short songs (most clock in under three minutes) are individually excellent, they are too much alike to make it a strong album. Buchanan is a master at creating a mood of ephemeral beauty, but the arrangements vary little: he croons gently over simple piano accompaniment that often traces the melody line, while synthesized sweetening fleshes out the sound. The Blue Nile used this approach fruitfully on tracks like “Easter Parade,” “Because of Toledo,” and “From a Late Night Train,” surrounding them with contrasting fare. Mid Air cries out for similar variety, but only the lovely orchestral instrumental “Fin de Siecle” breaks form. This particular whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, beautifully wrought though the parts are. “Cars in the Garden” and “I Remember You” are among the high points. The 24-track edition contains several alternate versions, including a pair of remixes credited to Blue Nile’s Robert Bell.