Walking Down This Empty Street - The Blue Nile's Hats Turns 30
The first time I heard the name The Blue Nile was roughly a decade ago, and I had only heard it after Duncan Sheik self-released an EP of cover songs from the 1980s, in preparation for the release of a full-length album he released in 2011, entirely of cover songs from the 1980s—all sparsely arranged, mostly for just piano and acoustic guitar, with the occasional layer of atmospherics added in.
One of the songs that was included on both of Sheik’s releases, and subsequently, one of my favorite of his songs, original or otherwise, was a cover of the song “Stay,” taken from The Blue Nile’s 1984 debut album, A Walk Across Rooftops. And, for some reason, a decade ago, when I first heard Sheik’s incredibly haunting, devastating cover of the song, it did not occur to me at that time to look up the original, or anything else about The Blue Nile.
Formed in Scotland in 1981, the band, to this day, has only released four full-length albums—all of which included a lengthy period of silence between them. The band itself has more than likely broken up at this point, and there is strong speculation the group disbanded after the release of their 2004 album, High, but no official statement as been made. The Blue Nile has, more or less, been inactive since then.
It was only recently that I realized I had been missing out on something with The Blue Nile, and specifically, with their sophomore album, Hats, originally released 30 years ago. Possibly in conjunction with Hats’ 30th anniversary, or possibly just coincidental in its timing, but Hats, as well as The Blue Nile’s two other earliest efforts—A Walk Across Rooftops and 1996’s Peace at Last, were recently reissued on vinyl; all extraordinarily limited pressings, they are long since sold out.
It was only after I saw a news brief, in the fall, about these reissues, where the band was referred to as being ‘influential,’ that I thought to give them a listen online, and I don’t think I had made it very far at all into the opening track to Hats, the slow burning, melancholic “Over The Hillside,” that I more or less blindly pre-ordered the album.
The thing about Hats, that I found almost immediately after sitting down with this lush sounding reissue, is that it has aged so well that it sounds like it’s the kind of album that still could be made today, 30 years after the fact—given how any modern outfits continually mine the late 1980s and early 1990s for an aesthetic. Exponentially more confident and focused than A Walk Across Rooftops, which at times, seems like the band is barely able to keep things together musically; pensive and moody, yet not as pensive, and far more sharp than Peace at Last, Hats three decades later, represents a moment—a moment for the band, and the sound they had worked toward, but the music also creates a moment—a beautiful, at times mournful one, that evokes myriad images of late nights, bright but fading lights, and rain coming down on the lonely city streets you find yourself on.
Workin’ night and day, I try to get ahead; but I don’t get ahead this way….
Hats is, at first glance, a sparse album—seven short tracks, the album is less than 45 minutes long. Musically, at times, yes, it can be sparse or skeletal in its orchestration, but it can also be complicated and dense—owing much to the way the trio, at the time, were able to built something tight and focused, constructing the album in robust layers. And one look at the track listing should give you an idea of what kind of record you’re going to be listening to—musically and thematically; of the album’s seven songs, six of them have titles based around, or imply, the time of day—or, rather, the time of night.
With only seven tracks to its name, Hats really can’t afford to waste any time, and it doesn’t—the instant you hear the slow trudge of the drum machine on “Over The Hillside,” you know what kind of world you are going to be immersed in, and structurally, the album flexes its intelligence as you begin to realize the give and take the record is built on—the incredibly slow, melancholic, as well as the damn near jubilant and triumphant. But it doesn’t stop there; Hats spends a lot of time ruminating on the spaces in-between both of those sounds.
“Over The Hillside,” almost, exists, or at least thrives, in those spaces in-between—like the small, pensive spaces in between the beats of the drum machine’s rhythm, but gives away to the sweeping grandeur of the song’s string accompaniment, the low rumbling of the bass line, and the steady strumming of the guitar. But, all of that, is really laying the ground for the iconic, distinctive vocals of the band’s frontman, Paul Buchanan.
I stop short of saying that there is something ‘different’ about Buchanan’s voice, simply because that sounds bad, or insincere. But it is, truly, distinctive—like at times, it seems like it doesn’t necessarily fit the music the band is performing, but once you give Hats enough time, especially if you are new to it, and The Blue Nile’s canon, it really leaves an impression on you—the way it’s a little fragile and off sometimes, but also incredibly powerful and soulful.
Buchanan explores both of those vocal elements right out of the gate on the simmering, evocative “Over The Hillside,” working his voice up to a bellow as he weaves his way through the verses, even past the refrain, toward a bridge section before the end of the song—“Over the hillside and home we’ll go….Tomorrow I will be there…Oh, you wait and see,” he sings, with such conviction, you can’t help but be taken aback by the moment when this song absolutely takes off and soars, before the band brings it back in for its skittering conclusion.
The juxtaposition of the fragile, and the powerful; the melancholic, and the jubilant, and the way the band effortlessly glides back and forth between the two, is maybe the most impressive thing about Hats—it all feels startlingly natural in the way it unfolds.
One of the album’s most triumphant moment arrives as the album’s second track—the sprawling, anthemic “Downtown Lights”; it’s anthemic quality only rivaled by two songs from the album’s second side—the bombastic “Headlights on Parade,” and the slinking, hopeful “Saturday Night.”
“Downtown Lights,” the first of many songs out of the set of seven that reference light, or a time of day (or night), is propelled forward by its strong, driving rhythm (both the bass line, and the beat programmed on the drum machine), as well as the warm synthesizers that are mixed in. But again, it is Buchanan’s vocal performance that makes the song—really going for it during the song’s mantra-like refrain, as well as the mostly spoken and not sung coda, which finds him tapping into a big, manic energy, rattling off shadowy imagery—“The neons and the cigarettes/rented rooms and rented cars/the crowded streets, the empty bars,” he barks, all before concluding it with “I’m tired of crying on the stairs.”
Opening the album’s second half, and smartly arriving after a slow burning, moody piece that closes out the first side, “Headlights on Parade” is, perhaps, the most enthusiastic, hopeful, and bombastic song on Hats. It never lets up, really, from the moment it begins, keeping that level of exuberance, balancing itself musically between the gorgeous and the dramatic, as well as the times when the two collide into something incredibly exciting. It finds Buchanan’s voice in powerful form, and lyrically, it’s the album’s most straightforward.
Why don’t you say what’s so wrong tonight?
The thing about Hats, that I learned only recently, when beginning to research the record itself after my reissue arrived, as well as researching The Blue Nile, is that the relationships between the three members of the band could often be tumultuous, specifically after they found success with A Walk Across Rooftops, and the pressure to follow it up quickly.
Hats, one could argue, was born out of frustration, and desperation—which is, truthfully, a common recipe that helps birth iconic records (Born to Run and Loveless come to mind immediately.) The mythology around the band, and Hats, suggests they returned to Castlesound studios, in Edinburg, which was were Rooftops had been recorded. However, the group hadn’t written any new songs before being sent into the studio by the head of their then label, Linn Records; the trio were also sharing a living space while trying to write and record, and tensions began to rise between members. Nobody was happy with the work that was being done in the studio at that time—an entire album’s worth of music was, apparently, scrapped at some point before The Blue Nile vacated Castlesound and returned to Glasgow, after three years of failed attempts. Buchanan, as a lyricist, was able to overcome the writer’s block that had been preventing him from working properly in Edinburg, and Paul Moore, the band’s main keyboardist, and Robert Bell, the bassist, began putting together sketches of instrumentation on portable equipment.
Backed with the confidence that came from these fresh ideas, and more focus on what the album’s intent was, the group returned to Castlesound, and committed Hats to tape in a surprisingly short turnaround; Buchanan alleges in an interview half of the record took a week to complete.
You can’t hear those tensions within the band, exactly, on Hats, but you can hear the kind of ‘all or nothing’ risk within just how big, and bold, some of these songs are. And lyrically, Buchanan was writing from a surprising place, documenting tensions, or at least ideas, happening immediately outside of the band. All of 33 by the time Hats was finally released at the tail end of 1989, he was witness his parents’ marriage falling apart—something that helped shape the moody, fragmented slices of ‘love’ and yearning, that found their way into his lyrics.
In that overall sense of darkness, or anxiousness, there are still flickers of hope, and “Headlights on The Parade” is one of those. Aside from being arranged in a beautiful, triumphant way with enormous sounding synthesizers and piano flourishes, the lyrics, too, give a sense that everything isn’t lost, “Only love will survive,” Buchanan sings, even though other lyrics in the song serve as a self-referential mirror to other moments on the album. “And if in love she cried, ‘Something wasn’t right,’” he sings in the song’s opening line. “I’m sorry, would be easy to say ‘I love you’,” which is eerily similar to the haunting “Why don’t you say what’s wrong tonight?,” pulled from one of the moodiest moments on the record, “Let’s Go Out Tonight.”
Hats concludes with another enormous, anthemic song, though “Saturday Night” is far less bombastic than some of the songs that arrive before it. “Saturday Night,” opening with a slightly mournful rhythm from the guitar, changes into something much larger rather quickly, with a descending flourish of keyboards and percussive chimes ushering in the song’s slinking, almost slow burning, sensual pacing. Musically, it’s a song that is so full of a sweeping, theatrical grandeur, including the accompaniment of a stirring string section, it sounds like the kind of song that would play at the pivotal moment in a movie set int he 1980s, about the two characters you’ve been rooting for the whole time, coming together at, like, a high school dance, or something.
Lyrically, it asks a lot of questions about the idea of love, or at least makes a lot of statements regarding love—“An ordinary girl can make the world alright,” Buchanan sings, and I guess I find the use of the expression ‘an ordinary girl’ not to be problematic per se, but mildly questionable at best. “Love me all the way—it’s Saturday night,” he sings, later, projecting perhaps a fleeting idea of this love, or this moment, only lasting so long. It’s on here that he, also, returns to the imagery that presents itself throughout—of late nights, bright city lights, immersing both himself, and the listener, in that environment one final time before the album ends.
There doesn’t seem to be a funny side….
While Hats obviously succeeds in these moments of of excitement, and dare I even go so far as to say that those songs are ‘fun’ to hear, the album really works, and works its best, when it becomes reflective, pensive, and heart wrenching—“Let’s Go Out Tonight,” which concludes the album’s first side, and tucked strangely near the opening of the second half (with two songs still to go) “From A Late Night Train,” are the most devastating portraits on the record.
While a bulk of the record seems to revel in the bright lights of a night in the city, or at least romanticizes it, “Let’s Go Out Tonight” changes the tone, musically, and it glides through like neon lights slowly reflecting off of a slow passing car—a lonely drive, late at night.
Slow, mournful, and almost icy at times, yet so beautiful in the way it shimmers, just a little, through the darkness, it’s in Buchanan’s pleading lyrics that make “Let’s Go Out Tonight” what it is—“Where the lights all shine like I knew they would/Be mine, all mine—baby, I’ll be good,” he sings, desperately; then later, attempting to establish assurance—“I know a place where everything’s alright. Let’s go out tonight.”
In what is more than likely the most effective moment on Hats, “From A Late Night Train” is a startling juxtaposition in tone when it arrives right after “Headlights on Parade.” The most skeletal in its arrangement, based around melancholic, heavy piano playing and a somber trumpet that adds an extra, and very important layer to the overall feeling of the song. It doesn’t so much become a jazz piece because of that, but the day very blue feeling that jazz is capable of producing permeates “Late Night Train.”
Lyrically, it’s also the album’s most vivid—still working with the thematic element that are found in almost every song, Buchanan sketches out the end of a relationship in all of its terrible beauty with the song’s first verse—“From a late night train reflected in the water/When all the rainy pavement leads to you—It’s over now. I know it’s over now, but I can’t let go.”
The thing that makes The Blue Nile a group that’s considered ‘iconic,’ or ‘influential,’ outside of the music they made, is their mystique, and their tempestuous legacy. The group waited five years between the release of A Walk Across Rooftops and Hats, then seven years in between Hats and its follow up Peace at Last, release in 1996. The group’s ‘final’ album arrived eight years later, in 2004, and the band more or less ceased to exist following touring commitments for that record.
Slowly paced perfectionism isn’t unheard of in the music industry (see My Bloody Valentine, for example)—it makes bands and albums become storied and mythologized, but it makes the artists themselves impossible to work with. Often tied to record deals they were perpetually trying to get out of, The Blue Nile frustrated their once manager Ed Bicknell to the point where he called the band’s history and slow work ethic the ‘most screwed up’ he’d ever encountered.
The thing that makes Hats a timeless, somewhat shadowy, record that still works today, 30 years after the fact, is, yes, okay, musically at times it sounds a little dated, even though we’ve come around again on 1980s inspired sounds in today’s music landscape—but it’s the imagery, and the earnestness that it’s delivered with; it’s the universal themes, and how those will always resonate.
Recently, and kind of in passing and half as a joke, a friend of mine told me that we ‘manufacture our own highs and lows.’ I told her that neither she, nor I, would ever probably be ready to actually have that conversation, but she is right. Emotionally speaking, what makes something a ‘low,’ and what makes something a ‘high’? And what about the space in between the two?
Hats is an album that fits all three of those—at least for me, and maybe your ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ are similar to mine. It’s about manic energy that comes on in sudden bursts, and then disappears almost with out a trace, leaving behind a terrible sense of sadness and longing. It’s an album about love, yes, but it’s not full of saccharine love songs—and it’s not even really about the difficulties of love; it’s about the condition itself—when it’s there, when it has gone, and what comes after that.
Like all art that lasts, and is still something you can uses as a point of reference long after its introduced into the world, it’s a reflection (set against dark streets and bright neon lights) of the human condition, and in the end, it’s about what it means to be a fucking human being.