The Blue Nile - Peace at Last (Collector's Edition)
On reflection, so strange to draw the line so (seemingly) early, but for The Blue Nile, those pioneers of the extended between-album break - appropriated subsequently by every lazy hack 'artist' who scrawled their life away on a five album contract - time operated on a different plane to the rest of us. A total of twelve years separates debut A Walk Across the Rooftops and Peace at Last. With their best loved work Hats appearing roughly midway between the two, that’s an album every six years. Oddly, it felt like longer at the time: a fan-base hungry for more was always willing them to get a move on but Paul Buchanan, Robert Bell and PJ Moore were having none of it. The songs would come when they would come. In the meantime, they would invariably retreat to their hometown of Glasgow and... wait.
So we draw the line here. The genius that had sparked that opening brace was found wanting. That, in itself, was something of a relief. How much magic could one act muster? Their quiet enigma contained a strand of unforced modesty. As critically bullet-proof as any act at the time, they offered shrugged shoulders. It's just music, they said. What's all the fuss about?
Here's a good 'un - rock solid proof of their self-effacing awkwardness. At the their first ever UK gig, the opening night of the 1990 Hats tour (yep - you had to wait until they had a second album before they'd even venture into a concert hall) at Derby Assembly Rooms, they were pointedly rocked by the crowd's response, extended ovations throughout delaying the start of the next song. They'd hired the hall to finish rehearsals and, for reasons that elude me all these years on, I’d wandered into the venue the day before. In an age of hyper-tight security and jobs-worth enjoyment prevention, it seems almost unbelievable; but from a dark corner, I watched them run through most of their set to an empty hall. They’d stop and start, beating themselves up for inaudible errors, cruelly self-critical. "Ach, that was shit," said Buchanan after a note perfect reproduction of 'Headlights on the Parade'. ("Are you sure you’re not miming, lads?" I, um, didn't call out.) During the show itself, they struggled to do anything beyond play with fire and grace and practiced ease, and they reworked their songbook into something unspeakably alive. You wish you could have transported them stage-front and let them watch themselves. Maybe then they might have believed.
"Where are the t-shirts?" someone shouted. "Oh, man," pondered Buchanan. "It's bad enough having to look at my face in the mirror. Don't ask me to put in on a t-shirt."
So. Peace at Last. It's solid. Largely glorious, never less than fine, but lacking the mood and tone of its predecessors. It's a stronger work than final (?) album, 2004’s High. The opening 'Happiness' where Buchanan conjures miniature gospels ("Now that I've found peace at last / Tell me Jesus, will it last?") from little more than acoustic guitar and a tapped foot is quietly magnificent. Ever focused on the fragility of love, 'Tomorrow Morning' sees him ditch dreaming for an inescapable reality: “This may not last until tomorrow / So look at all the love you borrow." Does that guitar riff have a touch of Roddy Frame (another Scot who divined expertly with a seasoned hand the hazy line between love and regret) about it? Peace at Last is earthier than what had come before; it's easier to get, informed by a heritage less alien and unsettling than the distant chill of Hats. Those "lovers praying to the streetlights" on 'Love Came Down' are classic Blue Nile. But that acoustic-led groove that accompanies them? Well, that could be anyone. Almost.
It doesn't want for majesty, for the near-ceremonial assembly of keyboards, strings, Buchanan's ragged burr and the to-and-fro frustration that sends the likes of "I wanna love but I never find the time..." skyward ('Body and Soul'.) But that old devil experience (not skipping ‘Family Life’ gets harder as the years go by), as ever, doesn’t enrich, and keeps Peace at Last earthbound, tethers its dreams. To some extent, the clue's in the title. This is the price you pay for genius, perhaps. Our expectation gives way to greed. Even though we knew there was just no way (the trio were older, wiser, richer and, no longer living in each others' pockets), we wanted another Hats. We still want another Hats. And that's what love does to you - sends you doo-lally with desire and boots reason into touch. But hey, the darkly romantic poetry that informed the master works is still quietly aflame.
The Blue Nile are no more (Buchanan and Bell remain friends but Moore has been out of touch for years) but Buchanan, with 2012's Mid Air, a delicate, fragmentary assembly of the spirit of his early work, proved he was still connected. Back to basics never felt so fully realised: voice, piano and, you know, a hotline to the dark heart of desire and loss. Like the characters in those early, pivotal recordings, drifting through the city at night, lost in aimless encounters, he's still here. So, further burden your creaking shelves with this well-intentioned but not totally essential (with no live material in the archive, and certainly no off-cuts from the album sessions, the thin additional material is most definitely only for the hardcore) re-issue if you must. But make Buchanan's ongoing recovering of the legacy and spirit of those initial adventures your number one priority. Cigarettes and moonlight. Never lose sight of the stars.