Ah synchronicity, the brain-wracking writer’s friend. I’m struggling to sum up in a sentence the essence of The Blue Nile when Roxy Music’s ‘Mother Of Pearl’ comes on the radio and does it for me: “The search for perfection, your own predilection, goes on and on and on”. Thanks Bryan: your micro-cheque is in the post.
Paul Buchanan’s search, or, more correctly, eternal quest for perfection is the reason The Blue Nile are only now releasing High, their first album since 1996, and their fourth in a twenty year career. They may be perceived as the Terrence Malicks of pop – brilliant, reclusive, obsessive — but Buchanan is too modest to admit the first of these traits and firmly denies the second. “I think what’s perceived as isolation on our part,” he reflects, “what it actually means is, we’re not on TV. TV is isolation. I’m at the bus stop. I’m really not isolated at all. I’m right in it.”
Still, signs of the third trait —acceptance of nothing but the best, sometimes to a fault — are visible throughout his life story, partly through attempts to temper it.
“When I lived in America, I saw a therapist, and it was great!” he says brightly immediately after we meet. “It was fantastic. He wasn’t strictly a Jungian, but he was along those lines. It completely changed my life, in many ways.”
Asked why and how, he expands. “I think my idealism had got me into troubled waters. I expected far too much, I think, from everybody, and I was disillusioned by lots of what I had experienced. I had gone out into the world, I suppose, expecting it to symbolically reflect my relationship with God. And it doesn’t. People can’t consistently do that. I think I was idealistic, but I was demanding as well.”
He pauses. “I suppose I expected the world to be more perfect, you know; and everybody to be true and pure.”
Did you expect people not to compromise?
“Yeah. And I think also, at times, because I was so intent on being good, and well behaved, that I expected everybody to do that, and I would be disappointed if they weren’t. Not only that, but I would sort of attribute negative motives to them. What my psychotherapist would be arguing was—look, it’s not them, it’s you.”
Now that he says this, it did appear to me when I reviewed High that Buchanan was critical of the characters in the songs, notably in ‘Days Of Our Lives’ and ‘High’. Cue a look of horror on his face—“No!”—and a grave shake of the head twenty minutes later: “I’m still obsessing slightly that you might have thought I was belittling the characters in my songs.”
Ultimately, as Alvy Singer postulates at the end of Annie Hall, we look for perfection in art because it’s just not going to happen in real life. You’ll find this ethos epitomised on High in ‘Stay Close’. ‘Stay Close’ closes the album and it has to, because once it’s over you need silence. Buchanan sings miraculously, pre-verbally; he cries, sighs, intimately exhales, peels off his protective layers to fearlessly and flawlessly convey human frailty.
This purity of expression didn’t come easy.
“I think I probably tried to sing that a number of times,” he ponders.” Obviously, the way that I sing, you know, isnae really about technique, or performance. It’s more about feeling the right way – and is the right thing coming out? It’s a bizarre experience. It’s obviously mental as well as physical. I think it’s about me getting what’s inside me, articulating something emotionally.
“Once you’ve got it, it’s OK then so you know what it is. Up until you get it, you know, you’re kind of looking for it. So when you get it, it’s not generally a consequence of lots of different ways of singing it. It’s just then it happens.”
It’s a moment.
“It’s a moment, aye. It’s like what you were saying about being pre-verbal. We’re so used to getting things dressed up in a way that’s palatable to us, which is often quite short of what a sensory experience is. You need to leave a lot of things aside if you’re really trying to communicate with people.”