Blue Nile is worth waiting for Review: 'Peace at Last,' the Scottish trio's first release in seven years, and third since 1984, sounds better than almost anything out there now.

June 09, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

What makes an album matter?

More often than not, the answer these days is a matter of visibility. A big-name act or a big-hit single almost always guarantees that an album will get noticed. Celebrity may not be everything, but it's more than enough to ensure that established stars will get their share of attention.

Musical merit still has its place, though, and every once in a while an album comes along that earns raves simply because it sounds better than almost anything else out at the moment.

That's certainly the case with the new album from The Blue Nile, "Peace at Last" (Warner Bros. 45848, arriving in stores Tuesday). Seldom does an act achieve such a perfect balance between the melodic and the rhythmic -- the spiritual and the physical -- as The Blue Nile does here. From the slow simmer of "Sentimental Man" to the stylized funk of "Holy Love" to the near-symphonic scope of "Family Man," the songs convey an emotional richness that not only exceeds the range of most albums, but surpasses that of many bands.

It's no wonder Blue Nile fans have been waiting breathlessly for this album. But it is worth asking why most pop fans have never heard -- or even heard of -- the group.

Start with its lack of hits. Though this Scottish trio has been making albums since 1984, its impact on the charts has been nonexistent. True, it has picked up some impressively high-profile fans over the years, what with the likes of Phil Collins and Chrissie Hynde singing the band's praises, but that sort of enthusiasm hardly makes up for regular radio play. As a result, it's a fair bet that more people know Annie Lennox's version of "The Downtown Lights" than ever heard The Blue Nile's original.

RF Compounding matters is the fact that this is not the most prolific

group in rock today.

After "A Walk Across the Rooftops" came out in 1984, those who knew the album couldn't wait to hear what the band would do next. But wait they did, for it took five years for The Blue Nile to deliver a follow-up, the critically acclaimed "Hats" (which included "The Downtown Lights").

Legal trouble

A nasty legal battle to free the band from a bad contract made the third album take even longer than the second, meaning that the fans would have to wait another seven years before hearing "Peace at Last." Career momentum it wasn't.

And yet, the sound of "Peace at Last" is so immediate and accessible, it's as if the band had been there all along.

Some of that has to do with the band's ability to seem both timeless and contemporary, harking back to an era of melodic drama and orchestral luster even as the rhythm section keeps the groove lean and modern.

Mainly, though, it has to do with Paul Buchanan, the band's singer and principal songwriter. Buchanan's voice is a classic British tenor, with a tart, expressive power in the mid-range that lightens and sweetens as he slips into falsetto. It's not a soul singer's voice, though it conveys a similar emotional immediacy; Buchanan's sound is too imbued with loneliness ever to take on the kind of exultation Al Green or Marvin Gaye deliver.

But that's fine, because The Blue Nile inhabits a different emotional landscape than those American soul men. Take "Happiness," for example. Had a Motown writer chosen to describe what it felt like for a lover to find his true soul-mate, what we'd hear would be flirtatious poetry and bass-driven uplift.

Happiness and doubt

Buchanan, on the other hand, can't help but sprinkle his happiness with doubt, asking "Now that I found peace at last/Tell me Jesus, will it last?" Even the gospel-style choir that fleshes out the chorus can't quite take the ambiguity out of Buchanan's approach, making it hard to tell whether the title is being offered as a statement or a question.

Buchanan's obsession with romantic impermanence -- "This may not last until tomorrow," goes the opening line to "Tomorrow Morning" -- may be enough to keep "Peace at Last" from being the feel-good hit of the season, but he's hardly the sort of angst-ridden whiner modern rock seems to produce by the truckload. There's no self-pity in his songs or voice. Instead, what we hear is the kind of doubt that comes with self-examination, the sound of a man who wants to be sure that what he feels is right in every sense of the term.

In that sense, The Blue Nile's songs work like the blues, diving into sadness as a means of transcending it.

As anguished as Buchanan sounds on a song like "Love Came Down," it's hard to feel down when hearing him -- in part because of the lyric's almost heroic take on the power of love, but mostly because the music seems so happy. Between the joyous bounce of Nigel Thomas' drumming and the hypnotic pulse of Paul Joseph Moore's keyboards, the music demands the sort of physical response that makes unhappiness almost impossible.

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