The Blue Nile
ome twenty years ago Scottish electronics and hi-fi specialists Linn commissioned a local folk band to record a song for them, in order to demonstrate the sonic potential of a fancy new piece of equipment they had developed. So impressed were the people at Linn with the resulting song, a strange, floating piece of electronic folk, that they formed a record company in order to allow the band, who had previously struggled for attention, to record a full album. The resultant record, A Walk Across Rooftops, continued the strangeness of that first song, imparting a forlorn romanticism via odd, synthesized arrangements and Paul Buchanan’s extraordinary, strained and straining voice.
High is only The Blue Nile’s fourth album, and the nine tracks it features take their entire recorded output to just 33 songs, which, from a distance, all sound the same. If careers in music were judged by profile and volume then The Blue Nile wouldn’t be much to write home about, delivering albums at huge intervals, rarely playing live, and steadfastly refusing to alter their chosen aesthetic and mood for anybody but themselves. This time the wait since their last album, Peace At Last (a title not to be taken as an indication of unfettered comfort when one considers that the titular lyric was “Now that I’ve found peace at last / Tell me, Jesus, will it last?”), has been eight years, longer than the usual five or six partly due to Buchanan being struck down for two years with a debilitating ME like condition, but the wait, as ever, is worth it if The Blue Nile’s windswept, urban folk melancholy has spoken to you as you gazed upon the city at dusk and wondered where you belong.
Sonically High exists in the middle ground between 1989’s starkly beautiful and lonesome Hats and the minimally luscious, contemplative satisfaction of Peace At Last, with austere synth washes and humanist guitar pickings existing side-by-side. Emotionally it’s in the same middle ground, where Buchanan’s precipitous voice is still distanced and pained, but now touched with a level of compassion which allows him to step outside of himself not into the drizzle and wind, but into the shoes of another person. The skittish, doubled beats of “She Saw The World” tell of a girl “at a bus stop / Reading postcards” and surrounded by gangsters, while “Because Of Toledo” uses a downward melody to tell of another girl (perhaps the same?) leaning “on a jukebox”, and who professes to “not really live anywhere”. The band’s signature musical sparseness is still very much in place, the intricately open production allowing the listener to pour emotion into the gaps between the notes and rhythms.
How you react to High will largely be determined by how you feel about The Blue Nile’s previous work. If the warmer tones of Peace At Last disenfranchised you after the coldly urban melancholy of Hats and …Rooftops, then High will press buttons in the way that only this band can manage, because it sounds exactly as you would expect a fourth Blue Nile album to sound. If you were hoping for something to stand above Hats as a late-night, solitary classic, then High will only get halfway there, because it sounds exactly as you would expect a fourth Blue Nile album to sound. Perhaps their best music has long since been made, but The Blue Nile still do what they do exquisitely well.