In his essay ‘The Blue Nile: Family Life’, Marcello Carlin observes that “On every Blue Nile album there is a moment where time stops, and emotion laid open and bare”. Eight years on from The Blue Nile’s previous- some say last- ever- album High, Paul Buchanan, the band’s singer- songwriter, has finally delivered the solo album that many long- time fans of The Blue Nile have anticipated. Buchanan’s Mid Air is an album of thirteen, three- minute, piano- led songs and one instrumental, all of which get to straight to the heart of Carlin’s astute observation.
Recorded by Cameron Malcolm (son of long- time Blue Nile producer/engineer Calum Malcolm), the success of Mid Air is largely down to the compression and brevity of Buchanan’s songs, which are as condensed and companionable as short lyric poems. The minimal arrangements that adorn each song eschew the sometimes too slickly produced, glossy feel of subsequent Blue Nile records. Mid Air‘s opening title track features a beautifully restrained vocal from Buchanan, underpinned by light, electronic, orchestral strings. Like Tom Waits- whose collective influence of Frank Sinatra looms large on Mid Air– Buchanan delicately croons and plays simple, elementary scales to stunning, emotionally intense effect, most evidently so on album highlight ‘Cars in the Garden’.
Initially given the working title of Minor Poets of the 19th Century (after a book that Buchanan bought in his local Oxfam) Buchanan’s literate lyrics recalls Larkin (‘Wedding Party’), Plath (‘Two Children’) and Yeats (‘My True Country’). Before recording Mid-Air, a close friend of Buchanan’s passed on; no surprise, then, that, lyrically, the tone and mood of Mid Air is elegiac. Buchanan, however, extends the mournful tone beyond bereavement; ‘Newsroom’ is a lament for the last days of print journalism (Last out the newsroom/ Please put the lights out/ There’s no- one left alive), while ‘My True Country’, featuring one of Buchanan’s most impassioned and convincing vocal performances, celebrates an imagined paradise. The portrayal of urban loneliness in the full glare of neon signs during the night- time hours- a central and defining characteristic of a Blue Nile song- is mostly absent on Mid-Air, save for ‘Half the World’ and the superb album- closer, ‘After Dark’.
In Mid-Air, Buchanan has crafted an accomplished collection of beautiful, honest songs that, like Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Tom Waits’Closing Time, rely heavily on the strength of their lyrics, their simple arrangements, and humble, delicate, fragile, convincing vocal performances. A Mercury Music Prize nomination must, surely, be mid- air.