October 13, 2016

The Blue Nile - Hats, 1989

To celebrate Listen To This’s 200 album anniversary, I wanted to share a record that feels too big to share on any other day. I mean “big” both in the canonical sense and in terms of its size and weight. The Blue Nile’s Hats is, for many, an all-time favorite and a regular aesthetic reference point, and yet for others it often flies under the radar. I was only introduced to The Blue Nile a few years ago when my housemate BK played “Tinseltown in the Rain” for me in passing one morning when we were taking turns playing YouTube tracks. Had that not happened, it feels very probable that I might still never have heard Hats. I never see it in definitive best album lists, Discogs recommendations, or YouTube playlist crawls, and yet so many music lovers talk about it with the kind of reverence reserved for the most formative, awe-inspiring records. It seems that in spite of an embrace of a new new sincerity and an endless fascination with synthy hi-fi 80’s textures, there’s still a lingering uncoolness about The Blue Nile—or maybe it never made it across the pond in the way it should have. (Incidentally, Hats will be turning 27 years old on Sunday.)

This record has historically been hard to talk about. There aren’t many immediate features to hone in on. The songs are slow and they build slowly, picking up just to a trot on the the album’s centerpiece, “Headlights on the Parade,” which might be one of the best songs ever recorded. Hats evades much traditional verse chorus structuring, instead moving in long, linear arcs. On first listen, you could call it austere, or even minimalist—you could say that there’s not much going on. Slick synth pulses, a drum machine, singing, a bit of guitar. But after a few repeats or a pass in headphones (please, please do), it opens up generously, saturated with silver and blue, dazzlingly hi-fi. The devastation is in the details: when the music does less, you can hear more. It’s as sophisticated as sophisti-pop gets. A prim drumbeat is actually a turn signal indicator click, a snare starts to sound like a pipe clang in a parking garage, a horn gets submerged in water mid-quaver, an isolated synth tone acts like a ripple. 

This is what I think of when I think of “cinematic music,” with slews of critics pointing out its painterly qualities, how evocative, falling somewhere between film noir and a graphic novel or even the nighttime bird’s eye of anime. Both Hats and its predecessor, A Walk Across the Rooftops, are sketches of a darkened city with streaks of neon reflected in wet pavement, anonymous buildings, headlight beams leaking through your bedroom window. The residues of people more than the people themselves. Though the record seems to be about a fantasy-noir version of Glasgow—and this is explicitly referenced in the lyrics—it digs at a very specific but ubiquitous breed of late-night melancholy that someone who’s never seen a Cassavetes movie might spend their whole life believing to be unique to them. Songwriter Paul Buchanan wasn’t shy about that intention, referring to their work as dealing with “that four a.m. feeling.” In a much later interview, in which an aged Buchanan walks around Glasgow pointing out landmarks from the making of The Blue Nile’s first two records (including landmarks that no longer exist), he added that “what was so interesting to us was the universal nature of cities, that much of what you would see, intersections or so on, were the same…because Glasgow obviously is not the same scale as New York, but if you just shrunk it down to a corner, it could be anywhere.” Similarly, these feelings could be anyone's, anywhere.

The band famously insisted that all their songs were love songs. Yet for Buchanan, this kind of love is never a straightforward A to B thing—he sings with a tired optimism, knowing full well that he pre-emotively sabotages himself. His love falters, doubtful even as it springs into existence, predestined for failure but still happy to fling itself off a cliff again and again. It’s a lot of questions with muddy answers: “Who do you love?/Who do you really love?/Who are you holding on to?” and “Where is the love?/Where’s the love that shines?” are genuine uncertainties rather than rhetorical devices. I think of halting declarations on A Walk Across The Rooftops (which I keep referencing because it's such an explicit prequel to Hats): “Do I love you?/Yes I love you!/But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go” and the mantric, unbending “I am in love, I am in love with you,” which aims to convince the speaker just as much as the recipient.

And yet for the listener, the melancholy of Hats doesn’t need to be explicitly lovelorn—this could easily soundtrack the life of somebody who travels too much for business and spends a lot of time in bad hotel rooms. Had I had this my freshman year of college when I completely alienated myself with the excuses of terrible social skills and anxiety, I would have skulked around campus listening to this instead of the Jesus and Mary Chain. It's prime raincoat music, with the silvery chic of Bryan Ferry at his best, the lyrical mythology of Prefab Sprout, the synthetic string sentimentality of OMD, and a razor-sharp specificity all its own. Johnny Black of Q rightly said that “if Hats has a flaw, it’s only that it’s too perfect, too considered.” The band’s engineer, Calum Malcolm, similarly recalled that “they were always particularly sensitive to not doing the wrong thing and making sure it had absolutely the right emotional impact: there were times when I’m sure everyone else felt something was done and then someone would throw a spanner in the works over some little thing.” It’s surgically precise music made by people who, owing to their lack of musical background, invented a language all their own, and the language is still perfect to this day. By the end of “Saturday Night,” the last of seven expansive and heartbreaking tracks, you want to cry, both because of the record and because the record is over. Thankfully Hats lends itself particularly well to repeat listenings.

From “Tinseltown in the Rain”:

One day this love will all blow over
Time for leaving the parade
Is there a place in this city
A place to always feel this way?


  1. great blue album. happy anniversary!

  2. Magnificently urbane music of the best kind, one of my all-time faves as well. Happy anniversary!

  3. Congrats on the anniversary! Curious if you had explored China Crisis' catalog considering Blue Nile was a relatively new discovery?

    1. only barely--favorite record(s) to recommend?

    2. Among their albums I'd recommend Flaunt the Imperfection - easily their best and most consistent album. Autumn in the Neighbourhood is a good second choice, less unique but more varied and with the same nice balance of synthesizers and conventional instruments.

      Their first two albums are nicely eccentric techno-pop but decidedly hit-and-miss. The three albums between the two I've recommended are even more irregular and frustrating - very nice songs interspersed with bland attempts to sound rockier, more soulful or sometimes even close to lite jazz... their songwriting was a bit simplistic in their early years but they had an odd charm that got lost while they were trying to mature. Thankfully they did their last album by themselves - they got those eccentric little details back into the music.

      Some of their best tracks didn't make it to the albums. I would definitely recommend a good compilation of their B-sides and also their early Peel sessions.

  4. Beautiful write-up, Jen. Hats has been one of my all-time favorites for a good 15 years now. I even DJed a wedding once where we hadn't worked out the "first dance" father/bride song beforehand, so on a lark I picked the best song of longing, love, and loss that I could think of, on the spot: "Over The Hillside." Neither had heard the song before, but it went over really well. Just some of that Blue Nile magic ;)