Album Review: The Blue Nile - High (vinyl reissue)
In my final year of college, and within the nine months that I stuck around Dubuque after I graduated, I spent a lot of my time (and a lot of my money) at Borders.
The now defunct chain of bookstores had just renovated a substantial part of the Kennedy Mall—doing away with the dingy video arcade, a few of the options from the paltry food court, all of the food court seating, and a Sam Goody1—to make room for the enormous bookstore.
I spent a number of afternoons, or evenings, during my final semester in college, with my group of friends, wandering the aisles of books and CDs; then, later, after I had finished school, I often found myself in Borders, at least once a week2, browsing endlessly through the labyrinthine ‘Fiction and Literature’ section, or through the ‘Pop & Rock’ compact discs, simply so I wouldn’t have to go back to my apartment3 until it was absolutely necessary.
There is a part of me, a small part of me, that wonders, at the tail end of 2004, and throughout 2005, if The Blue Nile’s fourth and final album, High, was one of the CDs that I happened to wander by—seeing the cover art, and not even giving it a second thought. I was all of 21 at the time, and I wouldn’t hear of The Blue Nile, as a band, until six years later; and it wasn’t until the group’s ambitious reissue campaign at the end of 2019, in conjunction with their seminal second album, Hats,’ 30th anniversary, that I actually sat down with their small, but dense canon, and realized that I had really been missing out on something incredible and important.
It is, of course, easy to say I was missing out on something that was always there for me; it maybe speaks to the fact that it found me when I was possibly ready for it.
There is a part of me, a small part of me, that wonders, that in the fall of 2004, on one of my trips to Moondog Music, the actual record store in Dubuque, if High, may have been one of the CDs enclosed in those cumbersome, gigantic, plastic theft-prevention cases, filed in with the other Bs.
There is another part of me that realizes this is me attempting to shoehorn something into a time period that I am dangerously nostalgic for; when I discover something, at a much later date, that was originally released at a specific time, I often put myself back in that time4, and think about where I was, who I was then, and what I was doing. And while I was all of six years old when Hats was released in 1989, as an earnest, sensitive 21 year old in the fall of 2004, when High was originally issued, I have a feeling that had I happened across it at a Borders, or even read about it in a music magazine, it’s the kind of dramatic, heart on sleeve record that I would have connected with almost immediately, and like so many of the other near-impulse or blind buys I made during this time with discs from Borders, I think that High would have, hopefully, stuck with me.
Arriving eight years after the sonically different and somewhat maligned Peace At Last, High was not so much a contractual obligation, but it was admittedly recorded out of an unspoken obligation the band felt to themselves, as well as to their audience, to make one more record that in retrospect, they knew would be their final.
The thing that is very striking about High—specifically hearing it now, 16 years later—is how it definitely doesn’t sound like a product of its time. In 2004, The Blue Nile had been a band since 1981, and High arrived 20 years after the group’s slightly ramshackle debut, A Walk Across Rooftops. I stop short of saying that the 1980s defined The Blue Nile’s sound, but once the 80s were over, and the group found itself in the mid-90s, with Peace At Last, save for more of a focus on acoustic guitars within the instrumentation, the band didn’t seem to want to grow out of their ‘sound,’ or, rather, move into a more contemporary, ‘of the times’ aesthetic. Their musicianship and ability to structure songs tightened between their debut, and the iconic Hats, and as they moved from the 80s, into other time periods, they obviously found a sound, or a style, that they were comfortable with and confident in, and didn’t see the need to embrace any pop music trends, or grow their sound away from what ‘worked.’
High, really, sounds like nothing else that was being produced in that era. It isn’t ‘stuck’ in a decade long since gone, but in thinking about how it sounds now, in 2020, and how it probably would have come across in 2004, it certainly does not sound very ‘modern,’ but I hesitate to refer to it as a ‘dated’ sound. It is, as Hats came across to me the moment the needle the vinyl on my reissue last winter, inherently Blue Nile in its sound—a strange, beautiful juxtaposition of the past, a present, an uncertainty about what is to come, and a tough to explain timeless, longing feeling that lingers long after the record has concluded.
Part of the appeal about The Blue Nile—now, for sure, and what has earned them the cult following they have, but perhaps also in the past as well, is the unconventional approach they took to both being performing artists, as well as to the ‘business’ end of being in a band.
Much has been made about the lore of the band, right from their auspicious beginnings in the early 1980s. The group, admittedly, barely knew what they were doing, or really played their instruments well when they began, and were signed to a deal on a label that wasn’t even really a label—Linn “Records” was the newly, and perhaps hastily, established imprint of a stereo equipment manufacturer at the time. Following two records for Linn, The Blue Nile released one album, Peace at Last, via a major label—a deal that frontman Paul Buchanan agreed to without the consent of the other two band members, alleging he did it because they were ‘out of town at the time.’
The ‘learn as you go’ process of the band’s early days, and their belief in not making and releasing music just for the sake of doing it—or, in the case of Hats, that the group had been asked by Linn Records for a sophomore album, and more or less balked at the idea of the turnaround being timely—is what lead to the group being seen as, for sure, perfectionists; and, possibly, difficult. Their one time manager called them ‘the most screwed-up’ he head ever encountered in terms of their willingness to work on things with any regularity or respect for deadlines.
The reason there were six years in between A Walk Across Rooftops and Hats is because of the pressure to create that the band quickly disregarded, finding the pace they needed to work at in order to make something they felt was right, or right at the time, and were happy with. This is what also contributed to the amount of time that passed between Peace at Last and High. The group, once reconvened in the studio, had apparently recorded over an album and a half’s worth of material, at one point, and scrapped it all. “We realized we weren’t in love with it,” Buchanan is quoted a saying upon the album’s release; his health, too (chronic fatigue syndrome) also played a large role in the amount of time between the group’s third and fourth albums.
If Peace at Last was maligned or not received as well upon its release, perhaps in part to its sonic departure (aside from the acoustic instrumentation, a gospel choir is used at one point as well), High is not so much a retreat back to a sound of comfort and what the group ‘knew,’ or thought would be successful, but it is a turn inward to the icy, lonely sound of Hats—I hate the term ‘spiritual sequel’ to describe two albums in a band’s canon that are loosely connected by some thread, but there are a number of similarities, both in the instrumentation, as well as the sense of desperation and longing in Buchanan’s lyrics.
Upon its release, High was not looked at as ‘pandering,’ per se, to that classic sound, but it was written off by some critics based on its very obvious sonic, and lyrical, return to the past, chiding the group—specifically Buchanan’s words, for being tropes of their Hats-era material.
But are those same tropes, familiar images, and ideas, what makes High so great? Is that, much like Hats before it, what makes it essential, nighttime, reflective, somber listening?
Like Hats before it, High is relatively short in terms of content—comprised of nine tracks, it is the second longest in the band’s canon, with Peace at Last being the only album to crack double digits, with their first two efforts only featuring seven songs each. And like Hats before it, High works on the deliberately slow burn and build, with minor bursts of tension and release throughout; but the tone, and overall conceit of the record is set from the beginning, and is carried through until the haunting, beautiful end.
Are these the days of our lives?
From the moment High begins, and you hear the pensive, plunked out keyboard that is meant to sound kind of like a real piano, but also not really, it sets the tone for the rest of the record to come. “The Days of Our Lives” does not simmer as slowly as, say, “Over The Hillside” does, the iconic, introspective opening track to Hats, but it does still simmer—it just never reaches the triumphant (yet reserved) peak that “Hillside” eventually arrives at. And that’s one of the things that is worth noting about High—that even when there are tracks that feel like they are on the cusp of blasting off (the unrelenting rhythm of “Broken Loves” comes to mind) rarely do the songs ever cross that threshold; the near slithering, quickly shuffling, frenetic pacing of “She Saw The World” is the only one out of the nine that reaches that kind of tempered cacophony.
It is also, from the moment High begins, that Buchanan revisits what is the ‘trademark’ imagery of the band’s lyrics—to some listeners, perhaps this was a source of real comfort, familiar as it was. Critically, the return to images of ‘rain, railway stations, traffic, and rooftops,’ and ‘the empty streets of provincial towns’ was dismissed as being predictable. “She lives in a house in London,” Buchanan begins on “The Days of Our Lives.” “She lives in a house in town. And waiting to greet the children, she sits around in her dressing gown.” Later, the word provincial is actually used (“The girls are so tragic in every provincial town”), and the song’s titular phrase becomes less of a declaration, and more of a question that is never answered in the song’s slinking rhythm (the borderline funk built into the song’s bass line seems a little out of place at first, but works.) The question, “Are these the days of our lives?” is asked a number of times, and in place of an actual answer, the imagery becomes starker: “A Christmas tree without angels, and wiping my bloody nose,” before the song ends with the plea for things to simply be as ‘okay’ as they are going to get. Similar to ideas found within some of the bleaker moments on Hats, here the song ends with, “An ordinary miracle is all we really need.”
As High’s first side continues, the group steers itself into a sound that finds the spaces where their chilly, isolated electronic sounds and the more ‘adult contemporary’ interests converge—“I Would Never” does just that, placing gently flicked acoustic guitar strings with a steady, sharp drum machine beat, while Buchanan ruminates with somber, near-regret. And here’s the thing about The Blue Nile, especially this time out, specifically with the lyrics. Because the group, as a whole, had spent so much of their career remaining shrouded in silence and privacy, it’s tough to surmise when a song’s lyrics are steeped in reality, or in a poetic fiction, or if there’s a point where they begin to blur; and there’s a lot of that throughout High, specifically when its lyrics turn surprisingly stark, and also in songs like “I Would Never,” where there is a bittersweet tinge in lyrics like, “I have raised a precious child to be a man,” run alongside the group’s trademark heartache: “I have wandered from place to place, and I have raised my weary hand to my face. But I would never turn my back on your love.”
While the first two pieces on High are exercises in restraint, there are two other tracks of the first side’s five songs that showcase that The Blue Nile are capable of injecting exuberance and energy into their work when they want to; and both “Broken Loves” and “She Saw The World,” while never reaching any kind explosive heights or climax, swirl around with a commendable, dizzying intensity.
“Broken Loves,” of the pair, is the one that oscillates the most wildly, beginning with a quickly paced, stabbed out keyboard riff5, and overlapping singing and lower ‘speak-singing,’ arranged in such a way that it seems to be channeling David Bowie. Even with these few questionable elements, the earnestness with which Buchanan delivers the vocals, though, is what really makes this one, with the same kind of possibly empty promises he’s been making to the ‘you’ in his songs throughout the band’s canon: “Sail on back to me envy. I count your sticks and all your toys—your laughter in the background noise. Please don’t give up on me; I’m gonna promise you something else. Some kind of broken loves.”
“Noir funk” seems like a tough description to wrap your head around but it is the easiest way to describe the sound the band achieves on “She Saw The World.” There’s always been a ‘noir-ish’ element to the band’s work (specifically Hats) and here they blend that, specifically in the piano and strings are blended together right from the beginning, but there’s a strange, energetic aspect that is introduced as well in the skittering percussion that pushes the song ahead.
Similarly to the slow, gradual burn that opens the first side of High, the second side opens with the titular track, and with this, the album really hits its stride in terms of the group showing its strengths and diversity in sound, all while remaining true to the ‘Blue Nile’ aesthetic.
“High” is exemplary to one main facet of the band’s sound—it simmers, but at the same time, there’s a slight chill built in, thanks in part to the chintzy sounding undercurrent of synthesized strings, and the dusty drum machine beat that keeps the song’s glacially paced tempo. The simmering comes in from the drama that The Blue Nile is always able to sell so well—the conviction with which Buchanan absolutely belts out his vocals as the song continues on, and the very emotionally manipulative piano chords that are plunked out as the backbone of the song. Lyrically, it wades into familiar territory, though is much less evocative in its imagery, with Buchanan, always playing the beleaguered, lovesick protagonist, finds himself pleading, as he often does—“Why are we going home with our lies?,” he asks in the first verse; then, seemingly getting totally caught up in the emotion of the song, continues uttering the phrase, “We could be high,” adding, “Something good got lost along the way.”
As the album’s second half continues, “Soul Boy,” with its steady, crisp drum pattern, and flittering guitar string plucks, steers things back into the ‘noir’ territory, but with less of the funk, and more of an icy slither; and “Everybody Else,” probably the album’s least successfully executed tracks, provides the album’s moment of triumph—not nearly as exuberant and exhilarating as the more ‘bombastic’ tracks on Hats, but it is cut from similar aesthetics.
While Hats ended with a slow moving, yet somewhat hopeful track (“Saturday Night”) one of the songs near that album’s end has to be one of the loneliest, most pensive, reflective songs I have encountered in a long time: “From a Late Night Train.” There’s really no way to rival the kind of feeling that song is able to effortlessly conjure; however, here, at the end of High, they really go for it with “Stay Close to Me,” a sprawling, desperate dirge that gorgeously, sadly pleads for over seven minutes. The music for “Stay Close to Me” never changes—never grows to any kind of peak, or really ever builds; it remains steady, while the elements swirl and tumble around, with Buchanan emoting as much as he can, hitting the titular phrase with a mix of sadness and anguish in his voice, alongside phrasing like, “The morning makes it bad/sun berating low. Soon you will know, if love is the way, soon you will go your own way,” and “And you let somebody love you—one day you’ll feel the way I feel.”
What is a band originally from Scotland doing writing a song about a town in Ohio?
Of the nine tracks that make up High, the most evocative, lyrically, and perhaps the most sonically different (it doesn’t include any percussion and is mostly structured around the acoustic guitar) arrives near the end of the first side—the tender, heartbreaking “Because of Toledo.”
While researching, as best I could, the group, both when I wrote about Hats at the end of 2019, and now, writing about High, I found more than one critical analysis that compared the group—specifically Buchanan’s lyrics, to the short stories of Raymond Carver. And maybe it’s because the opening line of “Because of Toledo” refers to staying sober (a common theme/struggle in many of Carver’s stories) but, much like Carver’s ability to craft very vivid images, seemingly out of nothing at times, “Toledo,” out of all of High, is the most literate, and haunting, with both the overall tone, as well as the stark portraits painted.
Imagery of substance abuse and attempts at sobriety aside, “Because of Toledo” takes us from the provincial towns the band’s songs usually reside in, or the dark streets illuminated by neon signs to America’s Midwest. “The pick-ups in the wild prairies—the shadows dancing in between,” Buchanan sings early on in the song. “A girl leans on the jukebox in a pair of old blue jeans. Says, ‘I live here, but I don’t really live anywhere.’”
The song’s second verse is, hands down, probably the most poetic and descriptive collection of lyrics from the whole album, effortlessly capturing a very palpable sense of longing, escape, and sadness, all juxtaposed against a maudlinness that is difficult to extract yourself from: “Tuesday, it's raining—and I’m pulling on my shoes. I guess I quit believing in the early morning news. As a boy orders coffee, and he settles down to think how the women that you love sometimes are the water that you drink.”
Maybe it’s because of the song’s lyrics, and just how create such a sharp, inward moment on the record; maybe it’s the song’s music, and how it is more inline with the arranging found on Peace at Last, and doesn’t so much draw attention to itself among the rest of High, but sequenced halfway through a record full of synthesizers and drum machines, something this fragile sounding is destined to be captivating; or maybe it’s the simple usage of a town’s name—Toledo—the fourth most populated city in Ohio—something very American turning up in a band that was anything but; maybe it’s all of these elements, and a terrible loneliness, that makes “Because of Toledo” the kind of impactful, difficult to shake, song that it is.
Buchanan refers to High as a stoic record.
The band’s Wikipedia alleges that ‘old tensions’ became apparent during the recording of High, and in 2005, as the band prepared for a tour in support of the record, all communication with guitarist Paul Joseph Moore ceased. Moore, in interviews around the time of the group’s biography Nileism, said that it was healthy for him to put ‘all that stuff’ behind him, and has balked at the idea of there ever being a reunion between the group’s three members.
Buchan is not as terse in his feelings about the dissolution of the group and the relationship between his band mates. “We’re inhibited by the Scottish male thing where you have to give the other guy space, but I love PJ and there isn’t a month that goes by where I don’t think about phoning him.”
The Blue Nile has never officially ‘broken up,’ but have been inactive since 2008, when Buchanan and the group’s bassist, Robert Bell, completed their last live performances billed under6 the band’s name. The two were both involved in the remastering process with these reissues—the campaign, beginning last year, as well as retrospective pieces featured on both Pitchfork and Stereogum about the legacy of Hats, certainly introduced The Blue Nile to an audience that might not have even been born in the 1980s or even early 1990s, but a real reunion seems completely out of the question—as they were when they worked as a band, its members have been very quiet following the release of High; Buchanan released one solo album in 2012, Mid-Air, a collection of short, skeletal songs accompanied only by the piano.
Buchanan refers to High as a stoic record.
During the press cycle for Mid-Air, he reflected that the band wasn’t ‘bristling’ with the same joy they had felt in the beginning, adding the group had gathered together for just long enough to make the album, and in the end, had made a record about ‘themselves.’
Is High as stoic and self-aware as Buchanan claims? To an extent, yes. A bulk of the band’s canon can be considered ‘stoic’ in its tone, but here, it does lack the brief moments of jubilance that were found throughout their other efforts, and it does cast a long shadow over the record knowing that the band were subconsciously aware, going in to record High, that it was the last time they’d be working together as a group.
High, as a whole, is a fitting final act for The Blue Nile—arriving, as its predecessor did—during a different era than the one they had originated in, the group more or less remained firmly planted in the aesthetic they had always known. Curiously, High was originally not included in the reissue series last year, arriving roughly seven months later, making it seem a little bit like an afterthought of an album, even after all this time. It’s not a perfect record, but even their best (Hats, of course) is also not flawless from beginning to end; even when High falters, it is still a fascinating, often gorgeous final statement from a fascinating outfit that could easily allow their mythology to overshadow the quality of their work—but their music, what little there is of it, is louder still.
The final, sprawling lines of “Stay Close” serve, unintentionally, as an epilogue for the band: “…Yeah, how’d it go today? One day, you’ll know the end of all days. The sons and daughters calling home and you waken up with the radio on—stay close to me….stay close…” The band, as something active, or functioning, is long since over; their music—what it meant then, and what it means now, remains; stays close.
1- The thing that I always found strange about the Kennedy Mall in Dubuque, Iowa, was that while, yes, it did have a Sam Goody in the foodcourt, it also had a Musicland located at the other end of the mall.
2- Borders, at the time, was really great at keeping a captive audience thanks to a steady stream of coupons for a certain percentage off on either compact discs or hardback books.
3- It’s not something I really talk about a lot anymore, but from August 2005 until May 2006, I lived in a basement ‘efficiency’ apartment that was dangerously cold during the winter, and also full of bats. I was miserable.
4- This is something I started doing when I read Radio On by Sarah Vowell in the summer of 2004.
5- I asked my wife, without telling her anything else about what we were listening to, if she could guess when this specific song was record and without taking even a beat she said “the 1980s.” She was shook to find it was from 2004.
6- Clarifying point: Bell and Buchanan toured as “Paul Buchanan Sings The Songs of The Blue Nile” in support of High, but after that, the duo reverted back to the band’s name, filling out the sound with a touring line up of musicians.
The reissued version of High is out now, on Confetti Records, as both a 2xCD set including rarities, as well as a LP.