And then there was one

After 15 years and only three albums, surely life must be getting easier for the Blue Nile? Nope. If anything, life is even more complicated.
Click to follow
When Paul Buchanan opens the new Blue Nile album with the question, "Now that I've found peace at last/ Tell me, Jesus, will it last?", his words belie the turmoil that went into making the record. This time last year, "peace" was the last word Buchanan would have chosen to describe his state of mind.

"It was like trying to run through thigh-high water," he says. "It was completely exhausting. My life now is just about my work, so to get up in the morning and not be able to do that - I would say that's a good definition of stress."

On a glorious spring afternoon in a mid-town Manhattan cafe, Buchanan is sipping cafe latte. He's just had an earful from his girlfriend after explaining why he can't fly back to Glasgow for another three days, and now he's asking me to be gentle with him on the subject of whether or not the Blue Nile is still a trio.

Last year - six years after releasing the glacially beautiful Hats - the Blue Nile were coming apart at the seams. Robert Bell, one of the band's two keyboard players, was recovering from the demise of a long- term relationship; the other, PJ Moore, was finally getting in touch with the grief of losing both his father and his best friend. As the band had done after their 1984 debut, A Walk Across the Rooftops, they were taking their time over a follow-up album. This time, however, two out of three members had absented themselves from the recording process, leaving Buchanan to twiddle his thumbs in various expensive studios.

"After Hats, there was never any situation where PJ could deal with his grief," Buchanan recalls. "Eventually it all caught up with him. And what are you supposed to do? Am I supposed to say, 'This is inefficient?' I mean, I've known him since he was a little boy. You want to adhere to the things you believe in, which is that you're friends for life, but on the other hand you can think, Jesus, I can't pay my rent!"

Listening to him speak, I'm struck anew by the achievement of this self- effacing 40-year-old Scotsman - by the way he's managed to retain both his dignity and a certain mystique through keeping a profile that borders on anonymity. And I'm thinking how sad it would be if the trio that crafted such electro-rock masterpieces as "Tinseltown in the Rain" and "The Downtown Lights" called it a day after the 15 curious years of their career.

To the list of the Blue Nile's masterpieces we can now add several more tracks - a minor miracle given Peace At Last's difficult birth. One is the new single, "Sentimental Man", which manages to be both insistently funky and rapturously uplifting; another is "Family Life", which could be one of those doggedly forlorn Tom Waits ballads as interpreted by a young, Glaswegian Sinatra. "Happiness", "Soon" and "God Bless You Kid" all follow close behind. Buchanan's singing on Peace At Last is, frankly, breathtaking - less elegiac and more sensual than it was on Hats, and all the more powerful for it.

"We wanted to make a rougher record, a more natural record," Buchanan admits. "And in that sense we completely reversed the logic of Hats and said, no, we want to make a rock-pop-soul record now. And, yes, we like soul music and we like The Beatles. That was the honest thing to do - not to landscape it. Not staying in the background and not correcting everything was absolutely what we wanted to do. We didn't want everything to be this profound Latin Mass thing. It was, like, if it sounds a little bit like Prince there, that's fine. We're also very weary of being interpreted as intellectual. We wanted the record to be visceral. It was the musical equivalent of not tidying your room, or being able to admit that the woman at the bar has got great legs without immediately having to beat yourself over the head with a stick."

Anyone who fell in love with the haunted beauty of Hats and its vivid evocation of rainy city streets may be thrown by the prominence of Buchanan's acoustic guitar on the new album, and by the gospel choir on the opening "Happiness". And anyone who gave themselves up to the sweeping melancholy of "Over the Hillside" or "The Downtown Lights" may be surprised by the prevalence of quasi-religious sentiments on the record, although they'll find quite enough Blue Nile signatures to reassure them. I ask Buchanan if it's hard to make the word "love" sound anything but hollow after 40 years of abuse by pop music.

"I think the word is abused - or just used where it's got no place. But if you acquire some credentials by how you really live, then perhaps it enables you to see a tender thing, and people may be more willing to see what you're saying. I mean, it's not Byronic, we're not swooning about. It's about the way somebody loves his kids so he gets on the subway and goes to work every day. It's hard won. The records are honest: there's no showing off, no frippery, and they're not about us!"

Talking about spirituality in relation to pop music is a tenuous occupation at the best of times, but there is something about the Blue Nile's music that is so redemptive, so close to holy, that the subject is unavoidable. As Peace At Last contains two references to Jesus, I ask Buchanan just how religious he is.

"When I was a wee boy I had a little plastic statue of Jesus, and that's the Jesus that I was thinking of," he says. "I'm not a born-again Christian. I think there are great passages in the Testaments, just as there are things I find resonant in other religions, but I subscribe to a more Whitmanesque view of things. There's certainly some aspect of our spirit that is difficult to measure in physical terms. Why should playing one piece of catgut alongside another bring tears to one's eyes? I don't know, but I want to consistently acknowledge that area of being alive."

So much music is about denying emotion, hardening oneself against the pain of the world. Music like the Blue Nile's at least gives vent to pain by allowing us to empathise. "Music is less debatable than narrative or structure or plot," says Buchanan. "With music you can sort of winkle things out by saying, 'I feel this - do you feel it?' "

A quick glance at the sleeve of Peace At Last suggests that the Blue Nile is now virtually synonymous with Buchanan. Those are his eyes that stare balefully at you from the cover; nine out of the 10 songs were written exclusively by him and published by Buchanan Music. So are you guys still a band, or what?

A long pause. "I don't know. You just end up torn about the whole thing. I suppose we're each other's best friends, and we're telling each other that we've recovered now and we want to carry on, but I don't think I could stand many more external problems. I mean, on paper we're still a band, yeah ... and in the heart. I think we're just trying to let some things blow over a wee bit."

n 'Peace At Last' (Warner Brothers) is out on Monday