The Happy One

  • Artist: The Blue Nile
  • Title: Peace at Last
  • Released: 1996
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Alternative Pop
  • Beverage of Choice: The Macallan 18

When The Blue Nile finally released ‘Peace at Last‘, after seven years of almost complete radio-silence, the subject matter, tone and instrumentation of the album were a huge surprise to me and, I gather, the majority of their fans. Always enigmatic, the band had spent the years between the release of ‘Hats‘ and Peace at Last doing almost everything but writing and recording; they did gain a reputation for perfectionism and an idiosyncratic approach to the music industry and the production process in general. How much of the reputation was deserved or simply a marketing ploy will most likely remain a mystery as the band, having being (unofficially) split up since 2005, are notoriously ‘shy’ when it comes to interviews and media.

Where the previous two offerings had a generally pessimistic view of the world, with stark arrangements driven by synthesizer and electronic drums, this album is, by comparison, warm and lush with a more positive and contented vibe. By arranging the music with acoustic guitar and piano leading the mix and synth/electronic strings in the background, the music sounds intimate and enveloping as opposed to distant and cold.

The lead-off track, “Happiness“, is my one of my favorite pop songs of all time with a gorgeous vocal performance from Paul Buchanan and a gospel choir backing on the chorus. The tune is simple and direct with lyrics that point towards a domesticated bliss, possibly the result of a maturing experience in the years between recordings. Buchanan wrote all the songs bar one (“God Bless You Kid”, which was co-written by Robert Bell) and his creative attention to detail, nuance and the emotive power of tone and space in the music drives the album with a cohesion and style that are uniquely his own.

Tomorrow Morning” is pushed along again by Buchanan’s guitar but listen carefully to the piano fills, hand-claps and string backing that turn a deceptively straightforward little song into a beautiful example of doing more with less.

Sentimental Man” has a wide-open feel to the arrangement with syncopated drums/guitar/bass creating a framework for sweeping synth strings and a passionate vocal delivery. Electric guitar towards the back end of the song adds color and tension, saving the tune from being overly syrupy with a funkier feeling.

Love Came Down” features, once again, strummed acoustic guitar as the leading instrument with structural elements provided by bass, drums and keys; Buchanan has an effortless vocal range and shows it off to good effect with transitions to a breathy falsetto at times.

Body and Soul” offers the most uplifting lyrics and a glimpse into the songwriter’s emotional plane; sweet and soaring strings (real this time) create a glorious picture of connectedness and love-struck ambiance.

“On Sundays we will go walking
And God willing
We’re breathing the same sky
Please believe me
The past is nothing
God is willing
I’ll love you ’til I die”

Holy Love” is a standout song on the album with a very different feel; more jazz than pop and an example of Buchanan’s vocal prowess in the upper register. Synth choir in the backing and electric guitar increase the interest but the song is just too short!

Family Life” returns to more familiar ground for the Blue Nile, in effect more melancholy than the rest of the album but still lushly scored with piano and strings so that the warm and intimate vibe is preserved. In my opinion you can hear some of Peter Gabriel‘s influence on Buchanan in the song structure and vocals; Gabriel was/is a key figure in The Blue Nile’s success and championed the group throughout their career.

God Bless You Kid” is the most like the rest of Blue Nile’s catalog being less guitar-driven and more focused on electronic instrumentation. Thematically, the song also provides less of an internal snapshot of emotion and is more abstract and distant.

The final tune, “Soon“, leads off with organ setting on the synthesizer and then horns punctuate the lush vocals; typically Blue Nile but also warm and optimistic leaving us with a cosy feeling that all is well in the world and love is all we need.

With only four albums in their catalog, The Blue Nile can’t really be said to have changed the world but they certainly provide a huge amount of artistic expression, musical perfection and emotional resonance in a small package. I’ll be spinning this disc for all the years to come and I hope you too fall under it’s spell after a few listens.

Published by Rick Adams

Husband, father, music lover

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