Friday, April 23, 2010

The Blue Nile: Vintage Electronic Melancholia

Glasgow-based collective the Blue Nile deftly trumps the general notion that all electronic-based pop music is synthetic, listless and lacking in any real soul. Ever since their remarkable debut, 1984's 'A Walk Across the Rooftops', the three-man band have consistently maintained a reputation for purveying timeless-sounding, intricately-constructed synth-orchestrated pop suites that still comprise one of the most outstanding repertoires in the rock era.

This theatrical musical palette is brilliantly coupled with frontman Paul Buchanan's poetic, elliptical, utterly moving vignettes of urban living, detailing relevant aspects like inner-city loneliness, economic desolation, and of course, that old faithful, unrequited love. On the wrong days, it can sound achingly human and unbearably emotional.

Notwithstanding the ridiculously prolonged between-album breaks (a mere four in a staggering twenty years), the Blue Nile remains highly relevant in this day and age, quietly standing far and above fickle trends that burn out within several months. Needless to say, the replay value of their songs cannot be overstated: virtually nothing in their back catalogue sounds remotely dated. Here are several prime examples of the majestic electronic melancholia that they specialise in:

The title track off their debut album paints a highly evocative picture of a nocturnal cityscape, all aglow and alive with the attendant neon lights, vehicular movements, evening crowds and human traffic. The well thought-out drum-machine backing track is carefully laid beneath a steady Moog-bass pulse and sweeping synth strings, making for one of the strongest opening tracks found anywhere.

A pensive piano ballad that juxtaposes the fleeting, brightly coloured jubilation of a city-street parade with the protagonist's more permanent, darkly shaded romantic uncertainties, 'Easter Parade' was later remade as a fuller-bodied number by bohemian singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones.

Arguably The Blue Nile's most accomplished composition, this excellently paced and slow-burning epic tone poem is painstakingly constructed from cinematic synth strings, an wavering synth-bass cadence and Buchanan's choked-with-emotion baritone. An intensely graphic study in urban isolation and the torments of unrequited love, this consummate and open-hearted opus abounds with striking, haunting lyrical images (walking alone down empty streets, leading an angst-filled existence in dilapidated, freezing bedsits) and some of the most candidly lovelorn lyrics ever laid down ("Sometimes I walk away, when I really want to do, is love and hold you close").

Weary-sounding synth-brass charts make up the backbone of this despair-filled lamentation, made even more sorrowful by some delicate synth-guitar pluckings and Buchanan's tired voice. One of the best anecdotes of a romantically-fuelled emotional crisis ever composed, and the ideal track to play at the ungodly, deathly silent hour of 3.00 a.m., when all possible hopes seem to have dissipated.

One of the rare instances of a relatively blissful tone in the band's repertoire, this cautious account of hard-won optimism provides a fitting closer to their sophomore album, the yet-to-be-matched masterpiece 'Hats'. Celebrating the protagonist's love for "an ordinary girl", it is, however, left uncertain if the girl in question is of a reciprocatory disposition.

Bolstered by a plaintive orchestral-string arrangement by underrated film composer Craig Armstrong, the piano sonnet 'Family Life' unflinchingly details the breakdown and dissolution of a marriage, and the subsequent disaster zone left behind in its wake. Certainly a much more evocative and effective exposition of a separation than Elton John's 'Sacrifice', which is the more popular standard.

An absolutely disconsolate and sorrowful elegy that trudges on like a dying horse for eight agonising minutes, 'Stay Close' is permeated with ominous-sounding synth-woodwind tones and a plodding machine-generated drumbeat. Add to the mix Buchanan's tearful, repeated exhortations for a loved one to "stay close to me", when quite obviously, the object of his affections has departed long ago, and you have the perfect song to soundtrack that particular barren state of mind you are left with, when all illusions of and prospects for a potential, long-lasting relationship have vanished.


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