Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Top 100 Albums - #11: Hats (1989)

Just missing out on the Top 10 is Hats, the only entry from Scottish band The Blue Nile.
The Blue Nile's career began almost by accident. Paul Buchanan (vocals, guitar) and Robert Bell (bass) had been members of Night By Night, who had a cult following in Glasgow but never secured a record deal. After graduating from Glasgow University in the late-1970s, Buchanan and Bell met Paul Joseph Moore (keyboards) who shared their intrest in music. The trio began writing and formed Peppermint Records, releasing the single 'I Love This Life' in 1981. In 1983, the band came to the attention of local hi-fi company Linn Electronics, who wanted a band to record music that would demonstrate the sonic range of the company's wares. The result was A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984), which sold modestly but garnered rave reviews. Following the success of singles 'Stay' and 'Tinseltown In The Rain' in Europe, the band spent the next four-and-a-half years writing, during which time an entire album's worth of material was scrapped.

Hats opens, very gingerly, with 'Over The Hillside'. The opening few seconds sees the perfect layering of instruments, beginning with the drum machine, then the shimmering keyboards and finally the benign strum of the Fender. Then the band's best instrument, Buchanan, comes in. His voice is quite astonishing, being earthy and understated, and yet yearning and ethereal; Buchanan is singing from the heart and yet is never willing to get caught up in himself. Like most of The Blue Nile's output, the lyrics are about love and relationships, particularly those moments which turn the most mundane things in life into something magical. It's a very soothing start.

'The Downtown Lights' gives the album its city setting. Even before the first verse starts, you find yourself walking down empty streets on empty nights, with barely a sound to disturb the experience. You are alone in the world, with only the streetlamps for company, and the feeling is one of complete contentment and peace. The lyrics, which see Buchanan pushing his range to the limit, depict a lover having doubts about his relationship with a woman (How I know you feel it?/ How do I know it's true?), and his reassurance through this strange sense of contentment that comes through walking in the city at night. The production is crisper than it is on A Walk Across The Rooftops, and while the song develops slowly you're carried with it, like a bird slowly soaring.

'Let's Go Out Tonight' continues the laid-back, contented feel, providing us with a slower tempo and some sweet chiming guitar work from Buchanan. The percussion section strikes that perfect balance between keeping the beat and having a presence; there's nothing flashy or remarkable, but it never feels like the rest of the song was simply imposed over a click track. Moore is much bigger on this number, with his keyboards providing the brassy counterpoint to the quieter sections, as well as the subtle undertones on grand piano once Buchanan's voice is warmed up. This song really demonstrates the central skill of The Blue Nile: they can write love songs which are heartfelt and resonate, but they never resort to sentimentality or overblown musical cliches to draw you in.

If you need any further proof of the band's pedigree, then look no further than 'Headlights On The Parade'. This is the central track, with respect to both the track listing and the album's message. If the album as a whole is an ode to the power of relationships and the brilliance of love, then this song is the manifestation of Buchanan's own, special love. He doesn't care about success, or money, or anything which the world defines as important: only love will survive and so that's all he does. The lyrics are simple but overpoweringly brilliant, combining heartfelt feeling with a subtle shrug of self-deprecation. This is also reflected in the music, with Moore's violin sounds working in the background to compliment the lyrics rather than overpower them, as they might on a Phil Collins track. Bell's bass is funky and gels beautifully with the electronic drum part, providing an enticing yet reticent rhythm. This is a magical, ethereal piece of work, a true work of musical art and personal devotion.

'From A Late Night Train' is the hardest track to like on here. The production is more distant and quieter, as on the previous album, meaning that you'll find yourself craning to listen if you're not locked into the sound. Otherwise, this is still a very pleasant song which again manages to put sweet images in your head; perhaps a child watching through the window on a long journey home, or (as the lyrics suggest) a lover leaving town after the end of a relationship. With its highly realistic trumpet sound, this is more mournful and sombre than anything else on here, but that's not a downside; it merely shows the band are serious about describing both the highs and lows of love as it really is.

With 'Seven A.M.' the band become more assertive. Where before Buchanan was content to sit back and muse on the nature of love, here he is actively questioning its existence in an increasingly busy and self-interested world. His vocal style is still frail and restrained, but the percussion is more intrusive and Moore's keyboard chords are sharper and more staccato. Our subject is frustrated; he loves a woman dearly, but both she and the world are unresponsive, and so Each time I fall for you/ It hurts me a little bit more. For all its more intrusive elements, this is still an arty song; there is no need for the band to prove their credentials by being visceral.

The albums winds up with 'Saturday Night', in which seemingly all the conflicts of love, lost and found, are temporarily resolved. The feel of this song is one of profound acceptance, both of one's lot in life and of the nature of life itself. There is a mature outlook towards life in general, but the sometimes childish nature of love is enough to dispel any dark clouds forming in one's mind. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking this is slushy pap. Quite the opposite. Buchanan's guitar chords are both languid and snazzy, popping up like the corners of a mouth turning up into a smile. Bell is again on hand to provide an interesting bass line and the whole song is profoundly satisfying.

The Blue Nile have shown throughout their career that they can write genuine songs about genuine life experiences, without any tedious moralising or dwelling on deeper meaning to the point of obsession. They are interested, in short, in the simple complexity of love, and in this respect Hats is their crowning achievement. People whose patience doesn't stretch beyond a 3-minute single will find this heavy-going, but for the rest of us this is an album which we can allow to unfold at our leisure. Being only 39 minutes long, it's not an exhausting experience, and you come away from every listen with your faith in life and love renewed. Every song on here is testimony to the human spirit and the power of compassion, something which is so often ignored or sneered at in contemporary music. Above all, Hats is the complete package with regards to musical craft: sweet, beautiful lyrics, spot-on production, ethereal musicianship and a heart and soul that is the stuff of dreams.

4.14 out of 5

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