If you listen to only one singer-songwriter’s album this year and it’s not by The Tallest Man on Earth, it might as well be Mid Air by good old Paul Buchanan. You might not know the Scotsman by name, but if you were around in the eighties, his affected throaty croon should instantly bring you back to the days of Thatch and the Mozzer, when one of the most improbable and unproductive acts in the history of modern music first saw the light of day.
In 1983 Scotland’s Linn Electronics, best known for their ground breaking drum computers, asked a trio of struggling local musicians to record a demo track for the new Linn recording console. The track was called A Walk Across the Rooftops. It was deliberately disjunctive to demonstrate the recording equipment’s dynamic range and clarity. Linn were so impressed by the song that they formed a recording label for the occasion and allowed the trio, consisting singer/songwriter/guitarist Paul Buchanan, bassist Robert Bell, and keyboardist Paul Joseph Moore, to record a full album.
A Walk Across the Rooftops by the Blue Nile was to become an eighties classic. It’s a stunningly beautiful album of ambient folk that rivals the best works of David Sylvian and Talk Talk. The second single from the album called Tinseltown in the Rain is nothing short of an anthem for a musically versatile decade that had much more to offer than just synthpop. The Blue Nile took five year to release their sophomore album, but Hats (1989) was well worth the wait. Less experimental, warmer and richer than their début, Hats was a meditative masterpiece that established the Blue Nile as the favorite outsiders of the UK music scene.
No one was surprised about the eight year hiatus between Hats and Peace at Last (1996). The Blue Nile’s third album more resembled their debut in the sense that it contained some unusual orchestrations and combined conventional with avant-garde elements. The album contained some real gems, but was less of a rounded whole and perhaps therefore not worshipped to the same degree as the Blue Nile’s first two albums. Another eights later in 2004 The Blue Nile released their fourth album. High was considerably more demure and sad than Peace at Last. It is the only album by The Blue Nile that I have not grown to love.
Between all the ambient decorations, automobile noise and odd percussion, every Blue Nile album contained a couple of songs that were just Paul Buchanan singing and playing the piano. These songs were possibly even more melancholic and disarming than the the others. Now, at age fifty six, the engaging singer has recorded fourteen of these lamenting ballads for his first solo album. They are probably the best collection of naked songs I’ve heard in years.
Like Mark Hollis and David Sylvian, Buchanan is a master of stripping a song down to it’s essence. Mid Air contains only notes that are absolutely necessary for there to be a song. All others are left out and filled in by the imagination of the listener. It is because of this and of course Buchanan reassuringly somber voice, that Mid Air instantly feels like the kind of album that is commenting on your particular situation. True, it helps if your over forty and enjoy rainy Sunday afternoon, sitting by the window, looking at old family photographs.
There are very few singer-songwriters that can captivate me for an entire album. Especially not when, like Paul Buchanan, they are expressing virtually the same sentiment in every song. The Scotsman’s perfectionism and thrift (only the last of the fourteen songs lasts over three minute) make Mid Air a wonderful exception. It will be a favored companion at least until 2020, when Buchanan might be expected to release his second album.