The Blue Nile: High (Sanctuary)
Barney Hoskyns, The Observer, July 2004
ANYONE WHO loves the Blue Nile as much as I do will know there is something profoundly holy about their music. Twenty years after the majestic 'Tinseltown in the Rain', theirs remains the sound of deep healing - of empathy with man at his most flawed and fragile.
The faithful adore the Blue Nile despite - and because of - their singular lack of street-cred. Massive Attack they are not. A rock'n'roll Robert Hughes would applaud their slow-simmering resonance in a soulless age of instant impact.
The mood of 1989's Hats - the magical swell and uplift of 'Over the Hillside' and 'The Downtown Lights' - was unlike anything else in British pop. The album explored the emotional grandeur of everyday life in ambient mood-songs that built over five, sometimes six, minutes of pulsing plinks and tinny neo-industrial beats.
"In love we're all the same," Buchanan crooned in a voice as intimate as that of the young Sinatra. "We're walking down an empty street..."
The empty streets of provincial towns are the stock-in-trade landscapes of Blue Nile songs, and it's one of the saddening facts about High - only their fourth album in over 20 years - that those landscapes have become a mite predictable.
'Days of Our Lives', which opens the album, concerns the longings of a loveless London housewife who 'sits around in her dressing gown'. Where once this woman's life would have come alive in the Blue Nile's music, now she could be the heroine of a Mike & the Mechanics song. (Part of the problem with the Blue Nile - as with Prefab Sprout - is that their biggest fans are dull mainstream pop-rock artists like Annie Lennox and Melanie C. For them he is the Glaswegian Michael McDonald.)
'I Would Never', which follows 'Days...', is categorically the worst Blue Nile song ever: fortysomething wallpaper rock with no distinguishing Nile-marks of any kind. Skip it.
The true passion of St. Paul finally breaks through on 'Broken Loves', a postscript of sorts to Peace at Last's serene 'Family Life'. His yelping 'Yay-yay-yay' vocal signature sails over staccato Scissor Sisters piano as a father and son struggle to cross the chasm of broken-down communication.
'Because of Toledo' - based on an overheard café conversation - is a sad-sweet song of American disillusion, sung over picked acoustic chords and the faintest hum of strings. 'She Saw the World' ups the tempo and switches the mood. A sonic grandchild of Hats' 'Headlights on the Parade', it has the restless get-up-and-go roll of that masterpiece.
Another Hats highlight, the forlorn and deserted 'Let's Go Out Tonight', is echoed by the hush of 'High' itself. Like 'Family Life' it's a muted piano ballad that could almost come from the songbooks of Tom Waits or Randy Newman in their more sentimental moments: luckily every Blue Nile album has to have one.
After those four very decent offerings, High's last three tracks see it petering out into nothingness. The closing 'Stay Close' is interminable and is certainly no 'Soon', the aching finale that concluded Peace at Last.
It's mildly alarming that the Blue Nile are now signed to Sanctuary, graveyard of '80s pop greats. The pity is that anyone coming fresh to them will not get what all the fuss has been over the two decades of their resolutely unfashionable career.
Better luck next time, chaps. Shall we say 2012?
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