The Downtown Lights
The Blue Nile’s sophisticated pop classic Hats turns 30
The Blue Nile has always been something of a mystery. While its records are unfailingly critically acclaimed, as well as lauded by their peers to an almost unusual degree, the Scottish trio never hit the public sphere with the same impact it did certain nerdy music circles. Though possessor of a distinctive sound that carries easy appeal, the Scottish trio doesn’t make it easy for potential fans.
The band never goes for the easy hooks one might expect from a bunch of Scots with a soul jones – singer/songwriter Paul Buchanan, bassist/keyboardist Robert Bell and keyboardist Paul Joseph Moore prefer to indicate the melody, as if beckoning the listener to fill in the blanks. When it comes to full appreciation, the band makes you work for it, confident that the effort will be worth the challenge. And, by and large, it is: Blue Nile records remain sources of endless musical fascination, taking multiple listens to absorb while still using sonics that feel inviting at first blush. Some might argue that the band simply doesn’t know how to write catchy songs, but that feels wrong. It’s more like the trio thinks that anyone can write catchy, hooky songs, but few take the kind of art film approach to tunes that fill up the sides of the band’s four albums.
Released in 1989, Hats, the band’s much-acclaimed second LP, makes the strongest case for its idiosyncratic approach. The album begins with a one-two punch that essentially lays out what the Blue Nile’s music is all about. “Over the Hillside” and “The Downtown Lights” take the U.K.’s distinctive vision of blue-eyed soul and roll it out like a skein of yarn, stretching it across a loom and weaving its various strands into a colorful tapestry of pretty sounds and almost subliminal rhythms. Bell and Moore’s electronic soundscapes have as much in common with post-rock as pop music, as if the pair was as stunned by Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden – released the year before – as everyone else. Buchanan wraps his velvet pipes around lyrics that sing around the idea of love more than of it, his sentiments propelled by his soulful phrasing more than their meaning on paper. These two tracks are quintessential Blue Nile tunes, mysterious in context but luminous in execution.
They are also far from the only tracks worth examination. “Let’s Go Out Tonight” and “Seven A.M.” explore balladry more overtly. Buchanan lets his obsession with adult romance ponder its mysteries in an (almost) straightforward way, while the songs ebb and flow behind him, propelling his heart to his sleeve. “I need love to be true,” he croons on the latter, and you believe him, even while wondering whose love he’s talking about. “Headlights On the Parade” ups the rhythmic quotient considerably to a form that might be dance music but for the singer’s almost ethereal grasp on the vocal melody. “From a Late Night Train” dispenses with rhythm entirely for an ambient version of pop that might not work without Buchanan’s rich voice. “Saturday Night” closes the record as it opens, with soulful pop that unfurls into your ears instead of jumping into your lap.
That approach describes the Blue Nile in a nutshell: gorgeous pop music that doesn’t act pushy, never desperate for likes as pop tends to be. Blue Nile music wants its riches to be discovered, but provides a road map, with a key written in code. Rather than simply throwing open its lands for plunder, the band lets just enough treasure sparkle in the distance to make the trip irresistible. Hats may well be the Blue Nile’s most savory pot of gold.
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