Paul Buchanan: A Heartbroken Nileist
Paul Buchanan - Mid Air (Newsroom Records)
Sigur Rós - Valtari (EMI)
Gossip - A Joyful Noise (Columbia)
Fun - Some Nights (Fueled by Ramen)
Many albums will sell better than Paul Buchanan’s Mid Air, but none – and possibly none this year – will stop you dead in your tracks quite like it.
Seriously, if you’ve got something else to do – walk the dog, finish an epic novel – don’t listen to this record in the process. I’ve got it on as I write and I’m struggling just to reach the end of this sentence.
The solo debut by the enigmatic frontman of Glasgow sophisti-pop legends The Blue Nile has taken eight years of typically excruciating perfectionism. “It’s quite small in stature and the songs are very brief,” Buchanan says, “but don’t get me wrong – it kept me awake at night.”
That’s a lot of lost sleep for 14 such spare and intimate numbers, partly recorded in his own home and based on little more than a lone, bruised voice set to soft piano and subtle airbrushes of synthesiser. It’s easy to appreciate why Buchanan’s legendarily painstaking band managed only four albums in 22 years.
Despite being the only Blue Nile member quoted – guardedly at that – in Allan Brown’s excellent 2011 biography Nileism, Buchanan was conspicuously silent when it came to revelations over the mystifying grievances that have left one of Scotland’s most special groups estranged.
He’s clearly a very private fellow, yet he’s not shy about emotional content in his lyrics – whether meditating on the romantic tribulations and regrets of a silver-haired bachelor, or his sadness at the recent death of a close friend.
Be it elliptical lines about “starlight in my suitcase” or “the girl I want to marry up on the high trapeze, the day she fell and hurt her knees”, few artists frame their feelings in such beautifully bittersweet poetic imagery.
Together they add up to what feels like a lament for a world that passes its narrator by in agonising slow motion. Mid Air is not so much a solo album as a solitary album. Spend enough time with it and rest assured it’ll break your heart.
I expected to be drawing similar conclusions about Sigur Rós’ Valtari, the sixth studio full-length from a band who, likewise, usually make spine-tingling majesty look easy. But what bassist Georg Hólm describes, in something of an understatement, as not exactly being “a dance album” proves uncharacteristically dissatisfying.
The signatures of the Icelandic quartet’s sound are still identifiable – geologically-paced post-rock build-ups, singer Jónsi Birgisson’s otherworldly trill – albeit arranged in a much more ambient way than we’ve previously heard, like a series of intros to songs that end before they really begin.
If their goal was a complete volte-face from the celebratory rush of 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, then they’ve succeeded, but in such a severe way as to surely leave many listeners cold.
American trio Gossip contrastingly aim for the pop jugular with their fifth long-player A Joyful Noise, the outcome of a year spent listening to ABBA on repeat and enlisting Girls Aloud producer Brian Higgins to help give them a mainstream makeover.
While an obvious hit fails to arise, a cleaner sound agreeably reveals further depths to Beth Ditto’s powerhouse voice, and the sleek lines of songwriting hitherto cloaked in a trashy punk exterior.
And another thing…
Trailered by radio-hogging single We Are Young, the debut UK album Some Nights by New York band Fun looks set to match its US success. Splicing pop, indie, emo and hip hop, it cuts across the genres sharply enough to please most of the people some of the time.