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 YouTube DJing. 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.
Anyone who has heard Prefab Sprout’s music at length knows that they are a band with zero-percent middle ground. You’re either enamored by their theatricality and ebullience or you find it incredibly irritating – but that’s not to say they aren’t a taste worth acquiring. For those uninitiated, the band was at the forefront of the British “sophisti-pop” movement alongside Scritti Politti, The Blue Nile and Aztec Camera – meaning heavy use of MIDI programming and plenty of early digital production gymnastics. What set them apart from their peers was frontman Paddy McAloon’s consistently highbrow songwriting chops – which, at their best, were wittier than Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter combined. Admired by the likes of Phil Collins, Arthur Russell, and Stevie Wonder (who would contribute harmonica on their song “Nightingales”), they are easily one of the UK’s best kept secrets.
On first listen, Jordan: The Comeback can be overwhelming – it’s deeply intricate, it covers a lot of ground sonically (gospel, samba, doo-wop and vaudeville) and plays more like a original cast album of a forgotten musical than a conventional pop record. For a songwriter who refers to himself in his own music as the “Fred Astaire of words,” McAloon dances around ambitious subject matter like nobody’s business – over the course of 19 tracks there are songs about the fall of Jesse James and the resurrection of Elvis before he assumes the character of God (!) on “One Of The Broken.” Along for the ride is the band’s longtime friend and producer, Thomas Dolby, contributing the technicolor digital synthscapes that act as the record’s constant.
This is an album full of surprises by one of my all-time favorites. Anyone who isn’t down to get cheesy might want to skip, but fair warning – you’ll fall head-over-heels for this album if you let yourself. Easily up there with Clube da Esquina or Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1 as one of the most rewarding deep listens over an hour long.
(For anyone who hasn’t dived into their work yet, I might suggest checking out their album Steve McQueen first as it’s a little easier to digest – but know that most of the Prefab die-hards I know consider Jordan to be the magnum opus, myself included.)