The Blue Nile
The Blue Nile
The Eighties have garnered a worse rap than perhaps they deserved, thanks to the cocktail of VH1 and the ubiquitous and perplexing phenomenal success of "80's Nights" at niteclubs across this fruited plain. I was in my hormonal prime during that decade, and I can confirm that, yes, they were shallow, vapid times consumed with awkward fashion and trappings of affluence.
The only saving grace the decade had was that it was followed by the lackluster '90s, which was just as artless a time; it just didn't have the celebratory zeal the '80s did. I'm reminded of the scene in Valley Girl where a totally punked-out Nicholas Cage was extolling the virtues of the Plimsouls to his date, citing their passion, their fire. Now the Plimsouls, like many strapping lil' bands of the day were OK, but it's hard to imagine they would ever induce that kind of rallying, listening to them now. See, we in that pre-alternative era had to get excited about something, otherwise Mario Van Peebles would've lobbied congress to have the entire nation soundtracked with fat drum machines and sub-Cameo synth washes.
Punk had not really taken hold in my little high school backwater, so we retreated from the Scylla and Caribdys of Zeppelin and Skynyrd in the cold embrace of arty new wave. It was a weird form of rebellion, with our car stereos projecting the deconstructed adult contemporary of Peter Gabriel and Bryan Ferry, but it worked for us. It made us feel complex and sophisticated. The one pervasive requirement of a fad for the disaffected is that it somehow makes you feel superior than the lumpen masses, that your own Punk Rock Merit Badge is earned with your devotion.
So anyway, since we were in that pre-internet (the '80s were pre- a lot of things) cultural wasteland, we had to scour magazines and take whatever nibbles our lines would register. I saw a list of various stars' favorite albums, and noticed with my keen eye for useless music trivia detail, that both Curt Smith of Tears For Fears and Thomas Dolby mentioned The Blue Nile's A Walk Across The Rooftops as their favorite album back then, so that was endorsement enough for me.
We scored a copy (my clique had a somewhat collective record collection - once someone got something, everyone else got a cassette copy a month later, so the wealth could be shared whilst maintaining Who Got There First) and we were all blown away by the sheer otherworldliness of it. The Nile's singer Paul Buchanan had the hoarse croon that was important to us for some reason, but the music was a delightful disjointed array of tin pans sounds and lonesome synth wails. Later, I learned that the record came about when Scottish synth manufacturer Linn needed a demo record featuring their LinnDrum equipment and enlisted our boys, and were so flabbergasted by the results that they started a label just to promote the record. To me, that album is one of the peaks of the New Romantic era.
Fast forward 20 years. The Blue Nile would emerge 3 more times over the stretch in even glacial integrals with yet another album that I would hope would be another dispatch from the cosmic iceberg that bore their debut, but to no avail. I thought Hats was just kinda lame - a little too Gorgio Mororder for my palate, Peace at Last had an uncomfortable level of Christianity in it for me, and it seems there was maybe another one in there that I never heard at all. So, here a week ago, I see they have yet again emerged with High, and I hoped for the best. It sounds a touch anachronistic, he still has that swallowed Sinatra delivery that I've moved past, but I think it still works. The ripple of beats, the quietly building synthesizer influx that threatens to submerge the whole studio by the end of the song, and Paul's haunted sadness are all there. It doesn't sound as immediate, as otherworldly as their debut did, but I am willing to cut them some slack. We live in an era of jump cut and disjointedness, so it's difficult to out-scatter the contemporary scramble of life.
It opens with a piano-pulse laden "Days of our Lives" allowing the lyrics of looking back through the gauze of disappointment, brings the things I like about this band back to me. The high point for me is "Because of Toledo" where he croons about drugs and sobering up over a simple base of acoustic guitar and subliminal bass. It's a distillation of the quiet excess of some of their other music that lets the smart melancholy shine through. The rest of the album is filled with their odd cold Sci-Fi Bossa Nova of the Damned that is their calling card, particularly "She Saw The World." I doubt this album is going to make any converts, but if you ever donned your trenchcoat defiantly at your high school, this will give you a little smile. This is not the '80s of VH1, but that of Donnie Darko, where under all that gloss and shopping and subdivision dwelling, there beats a true and struggling heart.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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