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45 at 33: The Blue Nile’s Downtown Lights

A reminder that life goes on, in Ye Olde Caledonia and out of it.

In the autumn of 1989, Scottish trio The Blue Nile released their long-awaited sophomore set simply titled Hats, a pristinely-polished gem from yesteryear and a superlative sui generis of ’80s sheen.

If you’ve never heard of them before, you’re missing out on a very under-appreciated band. Along the same lines as ambient, mature pop artists like David Sylvian and latter-day Talk Talk, The Blue Nile’s sound is much more relaxed and accessible, almost folky at times, with Paul Buchanan’s lovely croon the icing on the cake. Their music can be downright sentimental at times, but there’s a certain earnestness to it that I personally find refreshing.

Lest we forget when U2 and Brian Eno hitched a ride to become Passengers and went for weird on 1995’s Original Soundtracks 1, their stated ambition was to create a suite of cinematic pieces to serve as an imaginary soundtrack (mostly) for imaginary movies.

Well, following in the footsteps of ABC’s widescreen wonder The Lexicon Of Love — as well as acting as something of a sonic twin to Barry Adamson’s Moss Side Story released six months earlier in March of ’89 — The Blue Nile got there several years earlier.

Coming from the endless refinement school of music where they’d rubbed shoulder pads with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, nothing on the album could be accused of being rushed or done by happy accident. Indeed, the earliest sessions for Hats date back to 1984, before even their debut album A Walk Across The Rooftops had been issued.

As sophisticated as so-called sophisti-pop gets, every note, melody, beat and wash of synth is crafted with minute precision to create an album of immense cinematic quality that evokes suggestive images and scenes of stylish urban melancholy, restrained heartache and hopeless romanticism. 

The band should take pride in their own laborious production work — it’s exquisite. Indeed, the parallels with the two aforementioned elder statesman of art rock are two-fold, as much of the soundscape has, as Rolling Stone’s David Thigpen noted, “a sparse, soulful feel that blends the cool, nocturnal languor of Ferry with the mystical hues of Gabriel.”

The set decorations consists of city skylines, empty cafés, subways and street lights trailing a walk home from an after party — when just memories of the champagne and drunken dalliances are left to keep you company. 

The Blue Nile were unique for their shunning of eighties excess, instead whisking the listener up using a more cerebral approach. Easily, the best example of this is the elegant, dazzling The Downtown Lights, which was extracted as the lead single from the LP in September 1989.

It’s perfectly evocative of its title: rich in romantic atmosphere and graceful in its detail, it conjures a nocturnal fantasy world lit by neon and shrouded in the solemnity of Highland fog.

The arrangement is languid and slow-building, with a lush bed of synthesizers and a pulsing drum programmed rhythm moving like a stately slow burn, building inexorably until it gradually builds to a dramatic climax announced by a subtle cacophony of ringing treated guitars that echo latter day The Police. 

Paul Buchanan’s Van Morrison-tinged tenor is resplendent throughout, as he summons alluring images of cigarettes, magazine stands and forlorn figures in stairwells for his tale of longing and fulfilment in the big city. The soaring beauty is riddled with palpable loneliness and pock-marked pain. With an amorous angst that few could muster, his voice becomes tense and profoundly emotional at the 5:24 mark: “The neons and the cigarettes / rented rooms and rented cars / the crowded streets, the empty bars”, he howls desperately into the night, alone, bathed by the city streetlights. 

In its magisterial, fully unexpurgated version, the song stretches to six-and-a-half leisurely minutes but never overstays its welcome. It’s one hat you can’t replace — the sound of Talk Talk evolving in their embryo shell of adult contemporary, and the one song David Sylvian would have hocked his last bottle of saké to record. In other ways, The Downtown Lights is the progenitor of the Pet Shop Boys’ Craig Armstrong-helmed Vampires, from their mixed bag 1999 album Nightlife: both pieces provide a mellow, quasi-trance soundtrack to the vagaries of adult relationships in the small hours. 

In the UK, the 45 flickered hesitantly, running out of gas at a lowly 67; though across the pond, it garnered slightly more attention when it landed at #10 on American Billboard’s worthy if niche Modern Rock chart.

In 1995, both Annie Lennox (with whom The Blue Nile worked on her debut solo set Diva) and the redoubtable Rod Stewart issued cover versions of the track though despite their Caledonia credentials neither recording quite matches the sparkle of the original.

And how.

Steve Pafford

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