The Blue Nile’s second album, 1989’s ‘Hats’, is a thing of rare beauty. While it could be argued the general synthetic 80s sound dates the recordings a little, few could argue against the emotional content of its seven songs, or indeed, the magic of Paul Buchanan’s vocals.
For those who’ve ever wondered what the quietest moments of ‘Hats’ might’ve sounded like with less of an eighties sheen – ‘Saturday Night’ and ‘Let’s Go Out Tonight’ especially – Buchanan’s 2012 release ‘Mid Air’ may just provide one possible outcome. Across fourteen brief songs – with only one clocking in beyond three minutes – the sometime Blue Nile man sounds fantastic, musically, lyrically and vocally. Within this collection of intensely intimate tunes, Buchanan explores minimal musical textures, his voice and piano speaking volumes while at once delivering little. In fact, ‘Mid Air’s only weak point is it’s most full-sounding: the instrumental ‘Fin De Siecle’ presents slightly obtrusive string sounds from a keyboard (a definite throwback to The Blue Nile) in place of Buchanan’s own vocal. A definite piece of filler, this proves that Buchanan’s best compositions are wholly reliant on his voice to make them work, especially given that ‘Mid Air’ is a seemingly very personal collection of middle-aged recollections. Luckily, the rest of ‘Mid Air’ exceeds expectation.
Having only a few musical embellishments beyond simple voice and piano, this release has a wonderful consistency. Even though his vocals and most of the arrangements are almost beyond criticism, a few numbers really catch the ear. ‘Buy a Motor Car’, in particular, may just be one of the finest compositions in Buchanan’s (admittedly rather sparse) catalogue. His breathy voice sounds full of longing as is rises and falls accompanied by simple piano chords and a synth emulating softly plucked strings. With an arrangement which borders on musical sketch as opposed to anything fuller, this track best presents the style of ‘Mid Air’; edging gently forward, never rushing, always questioning. All the while, Buchanan’s voice mumbles, cries and sighs as if he is singing to an audience of one. ‘Summers On Its Way’ presents Buchanan striking a singular piano chord repeatedly, occasionally breaking from its hypnotic spell, while an upright bass sound provides soft accompaniment and, in the back, a soft drone fleshes out the sound. Buchanan knows the power of such a minimalist approach, filling any spaces with his aging voice, which, even at fifty-six years old, conveys all the fragile power it once did back in the mid eighties; now, perhaps, even more so. ‘Newsroom’ eschews the regular piano for a rather eighties sounding electric piano, and for two minutes, Buchanan sounds like the consummate storyteller, this brief vignette offering the closing sentiments of ‘last from the newsroom, turn off the light…there’s no-one left alive’. It may sound relatively bleak, but doesn’t necessarily come across that way as part of this collection of songs.
The slow and smoky ‘After Dark’ sounds exactly as you’d expect judging by its title, and while it doesn’t break from the familiar sounds of the previously discussed numbers, Buchanan’s vocal is particularly lovely, his lower registers often sounding as if they are on the verge of cracking. This, combined with a muted trumpet, really generates an atmosphere of sadness, more than on any other previous Blue Nile/Paul Buchanan recording. In relative contrast, the title cut is, perhaps, one of the album’s most uplifting, with a vocal that’s a touch more forthright and a piano that combines a unpretentious and unfussy musical motif throughout, as well as a very familiar Blue Nile-esque chord sequence. For those who’ve previously forged an attachment to Buchanan’s compositions, ‘Mid Air’ – the song – is impossible to dislike. On first listen, you may feel as if you already know the song, and perhaps, have always known it.
A night time record in every sense, ‘Mid Air’ is soulful, intimate, thoughtful, occasionally other-worldly. If those Blue Nile albums still hold magic for you, this album is essential. Likewise, if you’ve often read great things about The Blue Nile but never quite got around to taking the plunge, ‘Mid Air’ ought to provide some insight into what you’ve been missing, especially from a vocal perspective. Late night music rarely sounded any more exquisite.