THE BLUE NILE – Hats (1989)

Review by: Hipster Sokushinbutsu
Album assigned by: Nina A

Let me start outright by saying that this album is very much a product of its time, since 80’s electronica rock, new wave, new romantic, synth-pop and sophisti-pop elements are (fairly predictably) the rules of the game here. This review is pretty much coincidental to a recent epoch in my life where I re-christened myself ‘Hipster Sokushinbutsu’ in the realization that listening to music so as to produce a review is essentially similar to an ancient Japanese self-mummification ritual. You leave the mundane behind and enter a solitary state of meditation, feasting on nothing but an austere and hopefully healthy diet of the single album you have chosen or been given to review, composing the goddamn piece of writing whilst removing all the mental distractions amounting up to the fat that obscures your Inner Will – which is: to compose a multi-paragraph masterpiece of perfection that hopefully produces a change in the Universe in accordance with the aforementioned Will. Once you get done with yourself, you’re preserved for posterity as a sight to behold.
The Blue Nile, though quite well-renowned, were totally unfamiliar to me before I got this album to review. I have a soft spot for 80’s as a decade and music isn’t an exception. Yet due to my taste craving mostly the unusual sounds for some time now, this pop and ‘alternative’ album so representative of the late 80’s was able to escape my radar altogether. It came out the same year as The Cure’s Disintegration which happens to be my #1 favorite album of all time, and though darkly reflective and deliciously nostalgic, the two albums aren’t twins by any stretch of the imagination in my mind. The former was conceived on LSD by a depressed musician holing up in an apartment for a while with the woman of his dreams and coming up with anthems – if indeed they could said to be anthemic – of doom and gloom that are the soundtrack of the universal psyche, of love and loss. This album is the kind of music you’d love to listen to on the open top of a skyscraper, wind blowing in your hair, looking down on urban blinkenlights as the great tide of humanity goes about. The former is about closing down and drawing inward, this one is about bursting outward.
‘Over the Hillside’ starts with a tight synthesized drumbeat and spacey keyboard intro that languorously gives way to an infectious pulsating rhythm in a way that is uniquely intoxicating. Then comes the emotive crooning of Paul Buchanan, an ode to the beastly daily ritual of Work humanity is victim to since times immemorial, or at least since someone invented the less-than-a-good-move idea of ‘earning a living’ as if being a human being is not an honor in itself but, ironically, a shackle that names its own price. So you’re sitting at your table, probably in a cubicle, probably in your own room, working and wondering in the existential sense where this is even leading you. You look outside your little window and watch a train cutting a bend around the hillside, then going up and down the hills. There’s something in that sinusoidal rollercoaster motion that reminds you of your own life, being very much the child of Circumstance, of Nature’s forward propulsion that pokes, urges and sometime brutally prods everyone but those that have transcended mere matter, into further and further action, no matter how much you’d like to sit and brood on past hurts and present uneasiness. Enter the ubiquitous rock (a term that, parenthetically, some allege was coined way back by the CBS marketing division so as to produce a capitalistic economy of hipsteristic music consumption) fantasy: the done-to-death yet still vaguely and endearingly novel and fresh escapist motif of finding someone stupid enough to share your craziness and vanishing together into thin air – leaving and being never reborn in this fleeting world of woe and misery, a feat in Crowleyian terms not technically possible until you fully attain and go beyond the spiritual grade of 7°=4□. ANYWAY. Something sounding like a synthesized sax now makes an appearance, with the throbbing rhythm reasserting itself. A quiet desperation in the vocals leads you into a brief reverie that is oddly and strangely reminiscent of the famed (not actually famed but I personally think it deserves its own Facebook page or smth) crescendo of Alcest’s “Percées de Lumière”, yet nothing quite like it and relatively subdued. It is a nice but ephemeral episode, and presently you re-enter so-called reality and coming to grips with the brutal ironies of earthly existence you have to tag and bookmark that bit for some later time. Things get strangely variegated as a slightly new-age funk-like groove kicks in with soaring synths serving as the atmospheric backdrop, and as the beautiful track ends, you’re left wondering whether to rewind or to fast-forward … not the album but the events of your very life, though in logical terms the former would naturally ensue from the later unless you use your God-given self-will to decide otherwise.
I can’t go on and I can’t go back
I don’t feel so, matter of fact
I tried and tried to make good sense
What’s the good to try it all again?
So the mood for the album is set. The Blue Nile have drawn you in. ‘The Downtown Lights’ starts with a chime leading to the familiar rock rhythm. The song is literally about taking a downtown stroll, with your sweetheart – or with her spectre – by your side. There isn’t much in terms of variation or development, yet for some reason this song is the first single from this album. “Let’s Go Out Tonight” gets off to a start with a droney soundscape and gentle acoustics. The mood is once again that of urban loneliness and the wistfulness of imploring someone out; the single itself is slightly reminiscent of Katatonia’s “In The White” in terms of the imagery it conjures.
“Headlights on the Parade”, the second single, is something early Depeche Mode could have made. A stout bass and drum rhythm interplay leads to the some heart-melting vocals, lyrically continuing the tradition of two previous songs with some hypnotic keyboards and piano synths at work in the background. It is on “From A Late Night Train” that the direction followed by the previous tracks is curtailed and some new ideas are introduced. Some ambient-ish lounge-y atmosphere and sax with slow jazzy pianos with vocals filled with a slow, deep-felt passion narrate a story of past love and present loneliness. The closest analogy in purely thematic terms I can think of would be Alice Cooper’s “Stolen Prayer” or John Martyn’s “Man In The Station”. Slow, placid jazzy keys bring this to a tranquil end and we lead on to “Seven A.M.” which is upbeat enough to yank one out of the longing accumulating in your mind over the course of the previous track. Once again Depeche Mode sound-alike-ness kicks in but again not much going on in terms of novelty.
The ending “Saturday Night” seems to be a strong track here. It has an atmospheric and artsy post-punk / new wave vibe to it and deals with the theme of a Saturday night rendezvous with someone ordinary yet very special.
Overall, I think the album has its good moments and a romantic, sensitive, wistful vibe, not to mention Buchanan’s powerful vocals, but being a bit too formulaic it is not the kind of thing I would like to listen to on a very regular basis at all. People who love 80’s feels-y poppy electro-rock will find it a welcome addition to their catalog, and perhaps do it more justice when reviewing it. If however you like challenging or cerebral music, or some original sonic atmosphere, this will probably not end up on your regular rotation.
7.2 / 10

Author: tomymostalas


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