Those of you who receive my 'frankly more irregular than it should be' newsletter will know that I am running a competition to give away one of the signed limited editions of The Book of Lost Things. To be in with a chance of winning, I've invited people to nominate an album of their choice that means something special to them, preferably one that may be a little less well known than the norm, and to attempt to explain to others why it is worth listening to it. Further details are available here, but having thrown down the gauntlet, it seemed appropriate that I should nominate an album as well. (Actually, I may end up nominating two albums over the coming weeks, but it is my web site and if I am not permitted to cheat a little, then who is?)
So my first choice is A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile, from 1984. If that seems like a long time ago well a) it is a long time ago and b) it's not as if The Blue Nile has been unduly prolific since then. The band has released four albums in 27 years, of which two, A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats (1989) are pretty much perfect, while at least two-thirds of Peace at Last (1996) and High (2004) qualify for the same description, which isn't bad going by any reckoning.
I bought A Walk Across the Rooftops on cassette (such innocent times) in a record store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in 1989. Hats had just come out, but I had not picked it up, despite the critical acclaim it was receiving from all quarters. I had refrained from buying it because I was broke, which is a pretty good reason for not buying something. A Walk Across the Rooftopscost me $3.99, so I figured I wasn't taking a huge financial risk by buying it and it would allow me to find out what all the fuss was about.
The critic Giles Smith once described A Walk Across the Rooftops as "the noise of someone tapping despairingly on a radiator", but he meant it in a good way. I think. At a time when popular music seemed to be dominated by fly-by-night one-hit wonders and goons in pastel suits hanging off the sides of yachts, there was, and remains, something almost austere, even Spartan, about The Blue Nile's debut, at least at first listen. Certainly, that was how it seemed to me as I walked around the resort of Rehoboth Beach hearing it for the first time through the headphones of my little Sony walkman. There were the taps that Smith had mentioned, and then what might have been the bells of a tram, followed by a synthesized brass sound that could barely summon up the energy to exist at all. Suddenly, the most extraordinary voice emerged to sing the opening lines of the title track, underscored by clear-as-crystal pizzicato and a series of bass notes:
I walk across the rooftops/ I follow broken threads . . .
This was the voice of Paul Buchanan, and though it has changed as the years have gone by, deepening, mellowing, it was already one of the most potent and moving vocal sounds in modern popular music when A Walk Across the Rooftops was released. There is a frailty to it, so that it always seems on the verge of breaking, of collapsing in upon itself, but there is a strength underpinning it that prevents this from happening. It is a voice suffused with humanity. It is soulful in the truest sense of that word.
Buchanan was 28 when A Walk Across the Rooftops appeared, and the age of the group's members is crucial to an understanding of their work. Its three core members - Buchanan, Paul Joseph Moore and Robert Bell - had known each other since graduating from the University of Glasgow at the end of the 1970s. This is a group that emerged fully formed on its debut, a trio of men with life experience behind them, and A Walk Across the Rooftop is adult music. Its memories of rooftop walks on "graduation day" are just that: memories. Its songs speak of adult concerns:
If I tell you, will you listen?/ If I tell you, what will happen? ( “Heatwave”)
She’s crying in my shoulder/ Stay, and I will understand you (“Stay”)
Do I love you? Yes, I love you
Will we always be happy go lucky?
Do I love you? Yes, I love you
But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go
All this talking is only bravado
(“Tinseltown in the Rain”)
Was I an adult when I heard it for the first time? I was getting there, I think. I was 23, and I would graduate from university the following year. That summer, while I was exploring the US for the first time, my father would be diagnosed with cancer. By the time I got home he was too ill to recognize me, and he died shortly after. I had been in love a year or two before, seriously in love, and had seen how these things can fall apart so easily. Now I was with someone else, and I loved her. I cried only once over my father. That was shortly before he died, and I wept on her shoulder in a dark movie theater. To this day, I am convinced that I am the only person who has ever cried during The Silence of the Lambs.
The Blue Nile was the music that soundtracked this period of my life, yet I don't associate it with pain or unhappiness. When I listen to it now, I recall being far from home in a new place, with the sun on my face and a sense that, in the months to come, my life would change, and my destiny would lie in my own hands. And my life did change. By the end of that summer I had endured grief and loss, and had come through it. I moved on to a postgraduate degree in journalism, and thought that I might try to find a way to be paid to write. I parted from the woman whom I loved, although we remain in touch and are good friends. We visited the U.S. together, though, before we separated, and perhaps the seeds of the books that were to come later were sown during that visit. By returning, I seemed to be acknowledging that a link had been forged with these places that was destined to influence my life, or perhaps such is the benefit of hindsight. I went back to Rehoboth, and we played A Walk Across the Rooftops on the car stereo as we entered the town. We visited Maine, where I had worked after Delaware, and Virginia, where a small town in which we stayed provided the basis for a large section of Every Dead Thing. I walk across the rooftops/ I follow broken threads . . .
Unlike many albums from the eighties, A Walk Across the Rooftops hasn't dated. It still sounds fresh and pristine, a consequence of a decision by the Scottish hi-fi manufacturer Linn Electronics to form a record label just to release the album, so impressed was Linn with a sample track recorded by the band to showcase the company's audio equipment. Yet it is no sterile technological exercise in sound manipulation. It is a warm, organic record, its initial austerity gradually giving way to reveal the depth and intricacy of its arrangements, Buchanan's voice complementing the instrumentation, never crowding and never being crowded in turn, the various elements coming together to create seven pieces of music spanning less than 38 minutes that still sound like nothing else ever recorded.
Equally, its lyrical sensibilities remain entirely relevant: these are songs of love and doubt, of hope and experience. I saw Paul Buchanan perform live in London last year, in front of a crowd that could only be described as adoring. As the first notes of A Walk Across the Rooftop's title track began to play, I had to force back tears. If you asked me why, I couldn't explain, but perhaps some of it can be understood by what I've written here. Afterwards, I got to meet Paul Buchanan and shake his hand. I didn't tell him how much his music had meant to me. I was afraid that I'd gush, and I didn't want to embarrass him.
A Walk Across the Rooftops is not an album that yields its rewards immediately. It requires a little time, a willingness to listen, to explore. Hats, perhaps, is more accessible, but I came to it after A Walk Across the Rooftops and, while I love Hats, it doesn't have the same personal relevance for me. A Walk Across the Rooftops is a record for those who have lived a little and who, in doing so, have suffered and lost, but who have never lost hope. They will find kindred spirits here, and their lives will be richer for the knowledge of them.
This week John read
The Terror by Dan Simmons
and listened to
A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile
23 by Blonde Redhead
Steve McQueen reissue (acoustic disc) by Prefab Sprout