The three members of The Blue Nile all attended Glasgow University in the late 1970s. Vocalist Paul Buchanan studied medieval history and literature, Robert Bell studied mathematics, and Paul Joseph Moore electronics. The three members found their synth-drenched, sophisticated style almost by accident. Unable to find a drummer and with Buchanan’s lack of ability on the guitar, they found themselves playing atmospheric, electronic music out of necessity.
The band’s 1984 debut A Walk Across the Rooftops wasn’t a huge-seller initially, but it gained a devoted following, earning praise from fellow musicians like Peter Gabriel and Rickie Lee Jones. Buchanan’s voice is warm and soulful, and the band’s records are lovingly arranged. The band have been far from prolific, only releasing three more albums through to 2004’s High, while Buchanan released the solo album Mid Air in 2012.
The Blue Nile have clearly been influential on a younger generation of UK musicians – the introduction of The 1975‘s ‘Love It It We Made It’ has similarities to ‘Downtown Lights’, while Buchanan duetted with Jessie Ware on her 2017 album Glasshouse.
The Blue Nile Album Reviews
A Walk Across the Rooftops
The Blue Nile released an unsuccessful single, ‘I Love This Life’ in 1981, which disappeared when RSO Records went bankrupt. The group ended up releasing their debut album through Linn Records, the first record released on the label, as engineer Calum Malcolm had contacts in the company. It was a coincidence, but the group’s hi-fi, detailed music fitted naturally with Linn’s hi-fi brand. The seven tracks on A Walk Across the Rooftops took five months to record; the group’s attention to detail resulted in a sparse but beautifully crafted record that’s held up to passing trends.
The best known song is ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’, a song where the mid-tempo pace is giddying compared with the glacial pace of the rest of the record. Buchanan delivers his most iconic lyric; “Do I love you ? Yes I love you/But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go.” The opening title track is a terrific mood setter, with its atmospheric synth strings, while ‘Stay’ is closest in tone to the soul music that’s a subtle but important part of The Blue Nile’s DNA.
Lovingly recorded, and topped with Buchanan’s yearning voice, A Walk Across the Rooftops transcends its era with some beautiful music.
After touring A Walk Across the Rooftops, The Blue Nile were sent straight back into the studio to record a followup. With no new material prepared, the sessions were tough and the tapes were scrapped. The group returned home to Glasgow, where ideas flowed more easily, and by the time that Castlesound studio was available two years later, the group had songs prepared that they were able to record quickly. The record follows the same elegant sophisti-pop template as A Walk Across the Rooftops, but with lusher sounds and more memorable songs, making Hats the pinnacle of The Blue Nile’s discography.
As a microcosm of what makes The Blue Nile work, closer ‘Saturday Night’ is a gorgeous song that would have lapsed into mawkish sentimentality in almost any other hands. But Buchanan elevates it to greatness with his yearning voice and his unexpected lyrics about how an “Ordinary girl will make the world alright.”
There’s more gorgeousness with the lovely melody and synth backdrop of ‘The Downtown Lights’, while ‘Headlights on Parade’ is elegantly shaded with tinkling synths. Buchanan gives a gorgeous vocal performance on the swooning ‘Let’s Go Out Tonight’. Balancing the pop-oriented songs, there’s more atmospheric material like ‘Over the Hillside’ and ‘Seven A.M.’
Hats is a career pinnacle for The Blue Nile, a band making gorgeous music that’s pitched perfectly with their pragmatic romanticism.
Peace at Last
Following the success of Hats, The Blue Nile were invited to work with Michael McDonald, Robbie Robertson, and Annie Lennox. Buchanan moved to L.A. for several years, where he was in a relationship with Rosanna Arquette. The Blue Nile’s third album continues the hallmarks of the The Blue Nile’s signature sound, with the same sparse elegance, but Buchanan’s guitar is more prominent. Acoustic guitar is the primary instrument on songs like the opening ‘Happiness’ and the urgent strum of ‘Love Came Down’. The last three tracks feature a synthesizer-driven sound that’s akin to their earlier work, but Buchanan’s electric lead guitar is still prominent in ‘Soon’ and ‘God Bless You Kid’, where previously the sound was sparse.
The changes in instrumentation don’t affect the record’s quality – Peace at Last still follows the classy sophisti-pop lead of their previous albums, even if it’s more conventional. But the faster tempos and busier arrangements take away the band’s uniqueness, and the result’s an enjoyable record that doesn’t threaten the peaks of Hats.
The most memorable piece is the opening ‘Happiness’, with its gospel choir and the line “now that I’ve found peace at last/Tell me Jesus, will it last?” Christian themes are more prominent on Peace at Last; ‘Love Came Down’ opens with the lyrics “angels walking in the starlight”. The last two tracks of Peace at Last are the most familiar sounding to fans of the band’s first two record; in particular, ‘Soon’ slows down the tempo and turns up the synthesizers, backing a vulnerable, athletic vocal from Buchanan.
It doesn’t touch the peaks of their first two records, but Peace at Last is a worthwhile album that introduces new elements to the palette of The Blue Nile.
High capped off a 20 year recording career, during which The Blue Nile released 33 songs, a snail like pace of 1.65 songs per year. It’s a return to the stately synth-based sound of Hats; it might have been anachronistic in 2004, but in hindsight, it’s a fine addition to The Blue Nile’s catalogue, even if it lacks the magic of their first two records.
My favourite song is the title track, which uses piano and Buchanan’s aching upper register. ‘I Would Never’ is memorable, one of the more conventional songs in The Blue Nile catalogue. The acoustic guitar of ‘Because of Toledo’ is the only textural change from the keyboard instruments that dominate High, while the soulful closer, ‘Stay Close’, is the longest piece in The Blue Nile’s catalogue.
High looks likely to be The Blue Nile’s final album, as PJ Moore has become estranged from the other two members, and his stately electronics were a key part of the band’s sound. But Hats is a fine sign-off, if a little unexciting.
Paul Buchanan released his solo debut at the age of 56. Its sparse elegance is a natural follow-up to The Blue Nile. Without Moore, the electronic textures are gone, and the songs centre around acoustic piano, with a dash of orchestral instrumentation like the string filled ‘Fin de Siecle’. While The Blue Nile’s songs were often lengthy, the songs on Mid Air are short.
It’s difficult to pick highlights from Mid Air as, with short tracks and musical uniformity, it folds into one song cycle. The opening title track features a signature Buchanan couplet, romantic yet thought provoking; “I want to live forever/And watch you dancing in the air”. Lyrically it’s even more oblique than The Blue Nile; one prominent line is “the cars are in the garden now.”
If you’re a fan of The Blue Nile, it’s worth checking in on Mid Air, Buchanan’s finest record since Hats.
Ten Best Blue Nile Songs
Tinseltown in the Rain
The Downtown Lights
Headlights on Parade
A Walk Across the Rooftops
Let’s Go Out Tonight
I Would Never
Back to 2010s Album Reviews….