Review Summary: Oh Sputnik baby, be my baby...
Just the very fact you're here, reading this review on sputnikmusic, tells me something about you; you're a romantic. You see, the inescapable truth is there just aren't all that many reasons people listen to music in the first place. Sometimes it's all about the shared experience; dancing, singing along, collectively getting swept up in an atmosphere. In other cases it can serve as a functional tool which can soothe, relax or just provide a backdrop to whatever you're doing at the time. All perfectly acceptable and relatable to anyone. Where a person who visits a site like this, a place for (and let's make no bones about it) the obsessive, will differentiate from the populace at large is that these won't be their primary motivations for listening to music. No, in almost every case the true 'fan' will listen to what they do due to the personal associations they've formed with it and the sense that there's a deeper meaning lurking below the surface. The mistake many in this group make is believing this is a quality they share with all their fellow human brothers, but that just isn't so. There are people who have very little interest in music beyond the superficial, in the same way there are individuals who don't see 'the point' in fictional movies or books because they're 'not real'. This should in no way be read as a criticism, rather it's just a recognition that some people don't have a particularly artistic spirit or romantic soul...but YOU do, you're different to them, a hopeless romantic to the core. I'm certain of it.
This is an important thing to establish because when it comes to music this can be the very most influential aspect of whether or not someone is going to enjoy and identify with a particular style. For some musicians this also becomes their ultimate artistic goal; to lay down sounds that evoke, that conjure. It's a two way street, as with enough emotional investment and the application of a healthy imagination, even the most unlikely music can sink these sorts of hooks into a listener. Hell, there are surely people out there who'll be swept into a world of bare emotions and nostalgic reveries by Limp Bizkit, and why not? With enough exposure and a receptive soul anything is possible. All this being so, it's still obvious that some music stands out as being particularly suited to capturing this quality, where the very aesthetic lends itself 100% perfectly to the art of romance; the work of Glasgow's The Blue Nile is a case in point.
By 1984 the band had already tasted success with their debut release 'A Walk Across the Rooftops', a well chosen title that hinted the music contained within would be coming from a unique and somewhat magical perspective. Their sound lived up to the billing, a backdrop of chilly atmospherics that were then embellished by electronic touches, cinematic flourishes and Paul Buchanan's rich vocals. So it's with confidence and a swing in their step that the band returned to the studio in early 1985, though this mood of optimism didn't last long; writer's block set in and proved stubborn to shift. They abandoned the sessions, returned home and quickly penned the songs that would eventually come to form 'Hats'. From the sound of the finished record you are left to surmise they spent those months wracked by self doubt, haunting the streets of rainy Glasgow, lingering a little too long staring over the edge of bridges and embarking on doomed illicit romances.
Yes, 'Hats' truly is one of those rare 'magic portal' albums where you press play and everything's already set up in massive flashing lights, just waiting for you. No major investment of imagination or emotion is required, in fact it's more a case you'd have to actively 'un-listen' to this album to not 'get it'. 'Over the Hillside' welcomes you in with a lonely beat and a dreamlike Lynchian synth intro before Buchanan sets the tone of the album in his very first line of lyrics singing 'working night and day, I tried to get ahead'. The repeated references to railroads in this song, and then the later mentions of downtown streets, empty bars and parades, make it clear that the geography of 'Hats' is far from a Twin Peaks rural idyll. This is the sound of city life after dark, of being alone and lost in thought one moment, then surrounded by disorientating life and colour the next. This duality is captured perfectly on 'The Downtown Lights', a song that starts contained and steady only to build into a riot of sound by its climax. Later 'Headlights on the Parade' picks up the same sense of wonder at your immediate surroundings, dramatic piano and a throbbing pulse of bass lending the song a real sense of momentum.
The remaining material attempts to document the moments of stillness between these sensual highs and the results are nothing short of spellbinding. 'Let's Go Out Tonight' could quite possibly be the most beautiful ballad ever conceived, the understated refrain of 'what's so wrong tonight?' harpooning the listener's heart like just so much whale blubber. 'From a Late Night Train' hits square the sort of noir vibe so many artists fail to get right; you can only conclude that the train journey the song refers to must have been the bleakest in all human history. Set closer 'Saturday Night' might not quite appropriate Whigfield levels of positivity about everyone's favourite night of the week but it does add a tinge of hope to the mix. Instead of Perry Farrell's 'classic girl' here Buchanan sings for his 'ordinary girl'; after listening to all that's preceded you can't help but understand exactly where he's coming from and wish him every luck. Conceptually it ticks that final box, a perfect finish.
After 'Hats' the Blue Nile largely abandoned the synth heavy approach for a more traditional guitar led sound, one that's never less than pleasant but can't help but come over as far less subtle and distinctive. The temptation is to be overly critical and begrudge the band for not attempting to follow up 'Hats' with something equally unconventional but really, with the gift of hindsight, everything about the album screams 'one off cult affair'; an album for the musical obsessive if you like. The very fact you're here on sputnikmusic fills me with hope that even if 'Hats' doesn't fully win you over with its timeless nostalgic qualities then at least, as an unashamed romantic at heart, you'll 'get it'.