I Will Understand You: The Power of The Blue Nile
June 20, 2018 | by C.M. Crockford
Synths, almost inaudible, begin a distant melody. Chimes chatter and a sound resembling blaring traffic follows them. Mournful horns call. Drums thump to the floor, and a singer begins to describe his actions reluctantly, hazily, his voice slowly reaching a feverish state, as if he is overwhelmed with the beauty of living with his feelings, living in the city, living in any way, shape, or form. This is the song “A Walk Across the Rooftops” by The Blue Nile, and this is their power as a band: to channel the bittersweet, giddy sensations of falling in love or having your heart completely broken. Hell, to channel an emotional surrender so total nothing else can occupy you, whether to a person, a town, a moment.
The Blue Nile are in the tradition of cool jazz singers and songwriters like Billie Holiday, Scott Walker, and Cole Porter: vivid, melancholy, haunted by recent relationships and old wounds. Their non-music ancestors include Edward Hopper and Nicholas Ray, artists who were concerned with loneliness in modern life and didn't find answers as much as new questions. But The Blue Nile were principally themselves: They are the ultimate example of a band who created their own world within their music. When I listen to them, I see a young person, walking across a glittering cityscape, gripped by the sublime and wrestling with the nature of connection and isolation. They cry out “I love you!” to the empty sky. For a moment that is enough.
A Walk Across the Rooftops, their 1984 debut, cemented their sound and overall approach to pop. This was modern blue-eyed soul stripped of doo-wop or R&B origins, more focused on sparse rhythms as a means to process uncertainty, not to encourage bodily contact. You could dance to the tight grooves on “Stay” or “Heatwave,” but it was a solitary dance, aware of the vast spaces in the music. A dance as confession and barbarous yawp all tied to the phrase that echoes throughout all of Rooftops and follow up Hats: “I am in love with you.”
A note then on the vocalist, Paul Buchanan. There is no one on this lonely planet who sings “I love you” or some version of those words as powerfully and sincerely as Buchanan. His performance of that phrase, and other lyrics striking in their haiku-like minimalism (“Stay / I will understand you,” “I need love to be true” “An ordinary girl / Can make the world alright”), is invested with real, wrenching gravity. When Buchanan sings in that wavering and vulnerable croon, as if his voice is near spent but the words must be heard, it must be grasped. He's like a lover stripping down in front of someone for the first time, shedding every layer until they are lacking everything except a simple grace.
That grace was always mixed, of course, with fear and despair. In the final song of Rooftops the seeker confesses to his exhaustion with the endless urban struggle: “I am weary of this fighting / I'm weary of surrender / Heat of the moment / Then the unwinding of it all / Saddle the horses and we'll go.” Where Bruce Springsteen saw the automobile as the gateway to freedom, the narrator wants to go backwards into a past without machines or constant noise. His offer goes unanswered however as with many of Buchanan's pleas. The Blue Nile's music always found life to be a toss up between joy and despair, and the 1989 follow-up Hats is even more rooted in that conflict.
The album mix of Hats isolates each instrument into its own distant space, pushing the production trends of ‘80s pop into artistic statements. The distant, dull thud of the drums is relentless on each track. The listener is plunged into desolation, at once hopeful and hopeless. Yet by the end of each track the music comes together into a tormented rhapsody, warm and cold to the touch. Even when the Blue Nile find promise amid lonely modernity, they are uncertain of whether that contact, that new love, will be there in the morning, will stay as long as they desire. Buchanan sums up the conflict of Hats in one lyric: “The stars in your eyes / Knowin' what's right / The stars in your eyes / Don't explain....”
Single “The Downtown Lights” is their masterpiece, an odyssey through city streets as captivating, frustrating, and overpowering as the relationship Buchanan struggles with. We are brought alongside the prowling narrator by the insistent drums, the synths that resemble a church organ, the flourishes of keyboards that bring to mind twinkling skyscraper lights. The song becomes a mix of pop art and psycho-geography as the narrator is rushed down the pavement by the city that mirrors his lover to the point they merge into one. In the brilliant finale, the tempo speeds up and Buchanan is swept into a soliloquy of frustrated euphoria and rage, rage against the small places that trap him so. He reaches a fever pitch as the song vamps behind him: “The coloured shoes / The empty trains / I'm tired of crying on the STAIRRRSSSSSS! The downtown LIGHTS!” It is one of the great moments of pop music, of purest catharsis: Ian Curtis screaming “And we could dance!” on British television, PJ Harvey howling into a void on Rid of Me. On “The Downtown Lights,” The Blue Nile reached poetry.
The next five tracks on Hats range from devastation to sultry brooding. “From a Late Night Train” is a torch song of weary surrender; horns call as Buchanan admits, watching the starry dark, “I know it's over now.” Meanwhile, “Seven A.M.” is the most dance-y, sultry song on the album, armed with a slick slap bass and Brown-style chicken-scratch guitar. Over and over the lyrics ask questions that go unanswered. “Where is the love?” “Why don't you say what's so wrong tonight?” “How do I know you feel it?”
The closing number, “Saturday Night,” finds if not an answer than a measure of peace for the singer. He's still asking the same persistent questions over: “Who do you really love? Who are you holding onto?” over those simple synth hooks, but the chords here feel… serene, comfortable even. Buchanan sings “Saturday night, Saturday night” like a prayer. The strings shiver, sing along. It's clear that he only hopes the woman he sings to will “love me wrong or right” and will meet him outside the Cherry Light, but secure in the promise of the weekend night, the only evening in life where everything can go the way you want, where the streetlights glow and the time floats on by, he believes that “I love an ordinary girl /Sshe'll make the world alright / She'll love me and I know / Love is Saturday night.” He might have his heart broken again on Sunday but for now he believes. And that's enough for him.
The Blue Nile made two other records considerable years apart and eventually broke up, slowly becoming an unsung influence on recent R&B and indie pop. They seem unlikely to reunite anytime soon but that's alright. Their records are still out there, waiting to be rediscovered by bruised romantics and weird R&B fans of all shapes and sizes. Their songs leave us with images and moods wrenching and agonizingly lovely, like a man looking on the dying stars and knowing the deep, restless feelings inside are too much to bear. So instead of holding them in he'll put them to music instead.
Listen to "A Walk Across Rooftops"
Listen to "The Downtown Lights"