Navigating The Blue Nile again with band’s classic album re-release
March 2, 2014
Paul Buchanan is a people person. Mention your baby daughter to him and next time you speak he’ll remember her name and ask how she is. “The true line is important, James,” says the singer speaking on the phone from Glasgow, and the true line – ie all that is precious and emotive about life – has long informed Buchanan’s songwriting with The Blue Nile.
The Scottish trio’s 1984 debut A Walk Across the Rooftops and its tardy 1989 follow-up Hats established them as a treasured cult act. Blending rain-smeared, unashamedly romantic songs of the city with 1980s studio technology rendered humane, their wonderfully transporting music was ultimately defined by Buchanan’s voice; that wincingly accurate conduit of emotion that, in 2012, rode stark, piano-based arrangements on his acclaimed solo debut, Mid Air.
Today, though, Buchanan is discussing The Blue Nile’s 1996 album Peace at Last. Last year saw A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats remastered and reissued, each with its respective bonus disc, and now the group’s third album is getting the same treatment. “We wanted lines on hands and faces,” Buchanan has said of the LP.
Having made their first two, wearingly meticulous records in a former Victorian schoolhouse in the tiny village of Pencaitland, East Lothian, the group were reluctant to pitch camp there again. Signing to Warner Bros afforded them the budget to lead a more itinerant lifestyle, hence they spent time in Los Angeles and various European cities, often recording on the hoof in spontaneously hired rooms.
“It was a slightly bumpy period between the three of us in terms of the direction we should take,” says Buchanan. “The song Soon is a good example. I, more than anyone, was pushing for the slightly retro version that’s on the album and that was based on an old organ that I’d found in a junk store.
“The reaction to Hats had been great, but in a sense we weren’t ready for it. People would say of Peace at Last: ‘Oh, it’s not like Hats.’ We were like: ‘Yes, we know – we made Hats!’ The technology was changing after that, and you began to hear all these electronic records that had a certain precision to them. I didn’t want that.”
Buchanan says that an acoustic guitar that fate earmarked for his attention was crucial in finding the way forward on Peace at Last. Out walking in Manhattan one morning, he went into the renowned music shop Manny’s Music, briefly strummed an old black-and-tan-coloured Gibson, then put it back.
“Robert [Bell, The Blue Nile multi-instrumentalist] was in New York at the time, too, and he phoned me and said in passing: ‘Oh, I seen a guitar I think you’d like today.’ He described it and I went: ‘That’s really weird – I’ve just played it.’”
The instrument, with an “earthy, rusty-stringed vibe” that so attracted Buchanan, leads the album’s opener Happiness, a song that also packs sublime input from an amateur gospel choir from downtown Los Angeles. In typical Blue Nile fashion, recruiting them was a very low-key process.
“Someone at the record company knew a lady who worked at the post office whose sister sang,” says Buchanan. “So we went to meet the choir at their church and then they came down to the studio with their kids a few days later. We had a cup of tea, did a couple of takes and took some photos. There was an honesty to their performance you could feel in the room. They were doing it for the love of it.”
• The two-disc collector’s edition of Peace at Last (Virgin EMI/Universal Catalogue) is out now
The full tracklisting of the album is as follows:
Disc One: Digitially Remastered Album
Love Came Down
Body And Soul
War Is Love
God Bless You Kid
Disc Two: Bonus Tracks
Soon (Laurel Canyon Mix)
War Is Love (New Vocal mix)
Turn Yourself Around
Holy Love (Picture Mix)
There Was A Girl