Monday, May 21, 2012

It's still raining in Tinseltown

I'm not a betting man, but I'd waver a small purse on the fact that Paul Buchanan will never catch up with Rihanna's energetic work rate.

Unlike the Barbadian minx, who has released six studio albums in the space of seven years, Buchanan has produced just four records in 30 years with his band The Blue Nile.

Over the giddy course of their four releases - the last, and most probably their lastappearing in 2004 - the Scottish trio garnered copious praise from music's cognoscenti, holding them in the highest of regard as 'musicians' musicians.

Bracketed along with other earnest, serious synth-pop bands like Talk Talk, along with Scotia contemporaries like Hue And Cry and Hipsway, The Blue Nile were nevertheless a band apart.

Listening back to those four albums - the beautiful, haunting A Walk Across The Rooftops, the beautiful, haunting Hats, the beautiful, haunting Peace At Last, and, haunting High - it's not hard to see what earned them acclaim and collaborative requests from Annie Lennox, Texas and a lengthy list of other serious musicians seeking to tap into the same "beautiful, haunting" soundscapes.

But with The Blue Nile now on permanent hiatus, Buchanan has returned - eight years since High - with his debut solo album, Mid Air. Anyone expecting the sort of grown-up, soulful rock of Tinseltown In The Rain or  The Downtown Lights will be disappointed. This is an album as cold and as sparse as a Scottish moor in winter; extremely intimate and even claustrophobic at times, sounding - in its contemplative vacancy - as if it was recorded at three in the morning in Buchanan's spare room, hoping not to wake anyone else sleeping in the house. Which, it turns out, is exactly how it was recorded.

Just 36 minutes in length, Mid Air skips from track-to-track, Buchanan's achingly mournful voice applied simply over a piano, sometime hardly even registering above it, providing ample evidence why the singer is often referenced in the same breaths as Stephen Bishop or John Martyn for heart-on-sleeve, emotionally-draining singer-songwriter artisanship. The voice-and-piano combination forces you to listen to the lyrics, listen to the phrasing. It's a powerful combination when you have a voice like Buchanan's, but then the same applies to Tom Waits or Peter Gabriel (a case in point is his stripped down version of Here Comes The Flood, something of a prototype for Buchanan here). 

It is not, Buchanan says, intended to be a downer, but Mid Air's sparsity is the result of the singer simply not trying to make a group album:  “I think if I’d tried to make a record that sounds like the band I’d be quite nervous," Buchanan says in his publicity blurb, adding that the songs are "quite small in stature and the songs are very brief."

As a result, the 56-year-old Buchanan channels the highs and lows of getting older, of relationships changing and even loss. “When I was making the record, a close friend of mine died”, Buchanan says. “Peter was very moral, but not for any religious reason – he just loved people. He was also an excellent and hilarious guy, and he would have taunted me relentlessly if I’d made a requiem for him. The record’s very hushed, but it’s not mournful – it’s quite celebratory.”

Mid Air does take two or three listens to distinguish between many of its 14 songs, their plaintive four-in-the-morning angst appearing very similar on first listen, as if Buchanan has taken From A Late Night Train from the Hats album and tried to rewrite it several times over. He does, in fact, admit that he is “continually re-writing the same song”, chipping away at the themes that have absorbed him from day one, but then so have people like Roger Waters and Pete Townshend in their return to themes and, in Waters' case, the wartime death of his father as his writing muse.

Buchanan says the album came about, not through commercial necessity or contractual obligation, but because he found himself, indeed, at a piano staring out of the window in the middle of the night. "At no point did I think I was making a record," he recently told The Guardian. "It never occurred to me that anybody else would listen to it. Looking back, that was a great thing. That unselfconscious quality becomes more elusive as you go on making music, so it's nice to be brought back to that very simple expectation. It was almost like starting out again. I wasn't deliberately making a record of fulfilling a contract. There's a joy and innocence in that."

The result is a minimalist simplicity, an album that could soundtrack Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, were that piece of art to be depicting a Glasgow cafe and not a Manhattan diner at night. The sotto voce treatment, especially of the piano, gives it a Michael Nyman quality, especially on songs like Tuesday and Fin de Siecle. But in losing the warmth that made The Blue Nile's material such joys to curl up to, Buchanan hasn't lost the ability to make music to erect the hairs on your neck, drawing you in to hear the Scot considering life's transit ("Life goes by and you learn how to watch your bridges burn" he opines on After Dark, or "Far above the chimney tops, take me where the bus don’t stop," he reminisces on On My True Country).

Dare I say it, but Mid Air is both beautiful and haunting. It won't liven up dinner parties, nor make your treadmill workout any more vigorous. But if you like listening to contemplative, raw emotion on a record - and better still, through headphones in the middle of the night - this will be an album, much like the four Buchanan made with The Blue Nile, that you will periodically return to and wonder why you haven't listened to it more often.

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