Graham sowed the seed at our last meeting – as cinematic listening experience go Hats is up there with Dummy as one of the most evocative, image laden pieces of art this side of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Hats is the Blue Nile’s second album and for me, it is exquisite in every respect. I’ve seen it described in various places as melancholic, plaintive, wracked, harrowing but to my mind none of these adjectives quite nail it. The word that always springs to my mind when I listen to Hats (although you don’t really listen to Hats, you live inside it) is ‘romantic’…doomed romance undoubtedly, but beautiful with it and so, so sad that it is one of the few albums, possibly the only album that consistently leaves me choked up. Whilst this was being played at record club Rob seemed to mysteriously morph into Graham and just sat through the entire record without uttering a word. I am intrigued to know whether this was due to him:
a) Being asleep.
b) Becoming so maudlin whilst listening to Hats that he couldn’t bear to speak for fear of blubbing.
c) Being mesmerised by the album’s emotional heft and musical brilliance.
d) Being none (or all?) of the above.
No doubt the truth will out with time. Whatever, Hats broke new records for the quietest listen we have yet had with whole tracks passing by in total silence!
In direct contrast to an Elvis Costello album, Hats sets a high bar from the off and maintains that quality throughout. On the night I played Always Coming Back To You as a precursor (my favourite song from Scott 1) because Hats has always struck me as the kind of album that Scott Walker would have been making if he had continued to produce albums like the first couple of self-titled efforts on into the 1980s. The production values are undeniably of their time, but the songwriting is timeless, from the gigantic swirling mass that is Headlights on the Parade, the equally fine (despite the Tina Turner bassline – thanks Graham) Downtown Lights which reveals an uncharacteristic glimpse of Paul Buchanan’s anger and angst in the song’s quite brilliant coda, to the more stately, practically funereal ballads of Over the Hillside, Let’s Go Out Tonight and From a Late Night Train. Throughout Buchanan’s voice is ravaged and ragged, always effortlessly powerful but equally always restrained; this is a heroic effort free of sentimentality where the city is the backdrop and hopeless love is the subject.
The city plays a huge part in Hats success as an album, creating images in the mind that are hard to shift and shape the record, providing the ‘scenery’ for the acts that are played out in its seven perfect jewels. But the city that The Blue Nile evoke on Hats is a million miles away from the snafu city that Bitches Brew has always conjured up, the dangerous city that Stevie Wonder sang of on Innervisions or the alienating, paranoid Cities on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. No, Hats is a city of upturned collars, hunched shoulders, drizzly pavements, loneliness and street lamps. And this picture is painted in each and every song, nuanced and subtle and poignant and devastating until the final Saturday Night offers the faintest of glimmers of hope when Buchanan admits that he ‘loves an ordinary girl (who will) make the world alright’. The fact that earlier in the song he admits to the listener that he expects this love to be unrequited is par for the course…this is The Blue Nile after all, not bloody Katrina and the Waves!
Nick listened: There isn’t much else to say after Tom’s beautiful write-up here. I’ve owned Hats for years and, while I don’t play it all that often because it does, certainly, require a specific mood to fulsomely appreciate, I do love it dearly. A beautiful, lovelorn, windswept, failed urban romance of an album.
Graham Listened: A band I seemed to have read a good deal about over the years and would probably have had agreed they were good despite never having listened to one of their records. Tom, your write up says it all, in fact, “I hang on every word you say”. Magnificant sweeping cinematic vibe, whereas I always had imagined a far more delicate and paired back sound. Shows how much I know!
Rob listened: First things first. Tom, since you asked, the answer is ‘not quite’ to each of the four options above, but if you mixed them all together into some sort of swirling mood-gloop, that’s probably somewhere near how I felt. In truth, my state of mind was largely being shaped by the comedown from three days of codeine-based painkillers, followed by the double-whammy of a massive local anaesthetic and preparatory root canal work. The effects of the former were fading, and aftermath of the latter starting to make itself felt. I guess in some senses, the Blue Nile probably did fit my mood fairly well.
It struck me, listening back to ‘Hats’ a couple of times after the meeting, that to share Tom’s feelings for it you probably either had to have lived with it through thick and thin and to know it intimately enough that Paul Buchanan’s weltanschauung becomes your own for the duration, or alternatively be attracted to the precise, smooth, lush signifier sounds of 80s sophisticate pop. I reckon Tom, Nick and Graham each tick one or both of these boxes. I’m afraid I don’t.
Some of ‘Hats’, particularly some of Buchanan’s vocal lines, has started to grow on me, and I can imagine the circumstances in which I might reach for it. Balanced against that, I feel sufficient, gentle, magnetic repulsion from the AOR sound that I suspect my mental filing system will keep pushing The Blue Nile towards the back.