Some 23 years after The Blue Nile hatched the seductive blend of late night romance and technology rendered humane that was their masterpiece ‘Hats’, the group’s frontman and chief songwriter Paul Buchanan is releasing his debut solo album.
Titled ‘Mid Air’, it’s an extraordinarily intimate record, its spare piano and vocal-based arrangements unfurling at a meditative pace. Thirteen of its fourteen tracks are less than three minutes long, but rest assured all life is here. Buchanan’s beautifully bruised voice remains a faithful conduit of all things emotive, and Mid Air was written from a place of humility and wee-small-hours contemplation.
“You can struggle with your sense of entitlement”, explains the singer. “You think, I’m not Coldplay – is this valid? There’s a modesty that comes with that, but the upside is that many of the external pressures disappear and you start to feel dangerous as a songwriter again. You realise you’re still in love with music and you remember why you’re doing it.”
Mid Air was recorded at home in Glasgow, at a friend’s house on the East Coast of Scotland, and at Gorbals Sound, a state of the art studio that’s bringing new life to a part of Glasgow traditionally thought less than salubrious. The Blue Nile’s Robert Bell dropped by to offer a few thoughts as the work neared completion (“I wouldn’t dream of putting something out without playing it to him”), but Buchanan is the only musician on the record.
The singer says the albums’s working title was Minor Poets Of The 17th Century, this the name of a book he stumbled across at his local Oxfam in Glasgow. “That’s exactly how I feel about myself”, he smiles, “but in the end it seemed a bit unwieldy.”
Each of the album’s songs is gently infused with synthesised, mesmerisingly subtle orchestrations, these lending the music a quietly majestic quality. Stunning miniatures such as ‘Two Children’, ‘Tuesday’ and ‘Wedding Party’ seem to deal with the highs and lows of romantic love, but the record is also a touching act of remembrance in places, Buchanan drawing upon those happy / sad epiphanies that underpin loss.
“When I was making the record, a close friend of mine died”, he 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. What I observed in Peter over the course of our friendship was bravery. I miss him.”
Like different movements of the same symphony, the songs on Mid Air bed-down together beautifully. Once again, Buchanan has a wealth of carefully chosen imagery to hand: horses in the snow; a suitcase filled with starlight; an astronaut in God’s blue sky; a carousel on empty ground – these and countless other evocations lend ‘Mid Air’ extra resonance.
“I suppose my lyrics have elements of reminiscing and elements of daydreams”, says the singer, “but your mind doesn’t necessarily file things in alphabetical order. Sometimes you don’t even admit the experiences you’ve had or the value that you’ve given them, but they’re there. You overhear something or see a couple having a disagreement in the street, smoosh everything together, and hopefully there’s some alchemy involved. “
The key thing for me is to try and capture those little moments of humanity, those things that say ‘That’s us right there.’ If someone’s car alarm goes off and they can’t find their keys, it looks pretty much the same in Glasgow or Prague. And if you hear an ambulance you go to the window and hope that it’s not coming for somebody you know.”
At 56, Buchanan is, of course, acutely aware of the passing of time. ‘Life goes by / and you learn / how to watch / your bridges burn’, he sings on the album’s care-worn closer After Dark, but ‘Mid Air’ is wonderfully alive to beauty, dignity, hope, and the small kindnesses that sustain us.
“I’m done with that testosterone thing”, notes the singer, “that thing that says somebody has to be king of the heap. Nor do I have any interest in standing behind a velvet rope talking to someone, because it will all fade away.”
This shouldn’t, however, be mistaken for a dying of the light, or a downscaling of Buchanan’s creative ambitions. “No, you have to fight until you die”, he says. “I remember my father once sent me a letter reminding me that Puccini wrote Nessun Dorma when he was 65.”
Buchanan also concedes that, in some ways, he is “continually re-writing the same song”, chipping away at the themes that have absorbed him from day one. ‘Far above the chimney tops / Take me where the bus don’t stop” he sings here on ‘My True Country’. Naturally, such starry-eyed sentiments will chime with fans of the Blue Nile’s charmed 1983 debut, ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’.
At root, these beautifully smudged miniatures represent a still more potent distillation of all that has made Buchanan’s past work so special. ‘Mid Air’ – his little “record-ette” as he calls it – is wonderfully big of heart.