paul buchanan 1

WARNING: The article below may also contain references to Deacon Blue and possibly traces of nuts.

Beauty in Brevity seems a somewhat trite and yet accurate way to some up this album that took me over 6 months to finally get around to downloading. I can blame a limit in funds/time/the stupid amount of music one man can process, but, if anything, I was put off by reputation as I’ve never quite got around to The Blue Nile and worry about having another Prefab Sprout in my life as that is what they seem to have mutated into in my mind. This would not normally be a problem but does have serious potential consequences because a similar thing happened one dreary summer afternoon working at ‘the record shop’ back in ’88 when I briefly, ever so briefly mind, fell for Deacon Blue’s ‘Raintown’ though, in my defence, I am pretty tight and a deluxe cassette with about 90 minutes of music on it seemed too good an offer to refuse despite the fact that it so very obviously was. That sodding dinghy! I blame Thursday afternoons in Oswestry. Onywey, (hmm…patronising, vaguely dialectic style adopted to discuss music from Glasgow simply must stop) I kind of had The Blue Nile figured as a bit too slick at the time and really not too punkrock. There is also the small matter of feeling like I needed to get to The Blue Nile first before attempting to appreciate a solo album from their singer …but wait a minute, their first two albums are now remastered as double discs with lots of bonus material? Hmm…It’s happening again.(“Set it up again!” – pipe down Ricky Ross!) And Mid Air’s brevity is now boosted by a deluxe edition with 10 extra tracks too! All the signs were there, I had to go for it. I did also like the couple of tracks I’d heard on free compilations. It still clocks in at under an hour, something Neil Young might want to consider after ruining ‘Psychedelic Pill’ with seemingly endless jamming. However, my gnat’s chuff-esque* approach towards music kind of negates the whole beauty and brevity angle.

Back to Buchanan, the songs appear and disappear in a flash of 2 to 3 minutes and are then gone, ‘tiny epiphanies’ – says The Independent which brings ‘Dubliners’ into my thoughts. I guess this made previews somewhat redundant as a way of sampling the delights held within. It also stands in contrast to The Blue Nile who featured just 7 songs on each of their first 2 albums and with considerably more complex musical accompaniment too. Maybe this is why the album is so very different to what I would have expected. That a certain aim for perfection lies within these little musical vignettes is certain and yet the casually tossed off 2 minute pop song is where music begins and ends for some of us. A first listen in the afternoon led me into this wonderfully heartwarming and/or broken world despite the irritation of the carwashers below the apartment resorting to the Easyvac far too close to our building once again. It framed an afternoon. It may have allowed me to wallow in melancholy, it made the concentration on finishing the excellent book I was hitherto reading undisturbed was now diminished, yes, it’s fair to say that the album had gripped me on first listen even if said listen came a little too late for to allow for consideration among my albums of the year. It’s safe to say that, had I picked this up back in May when it first appeared, it would have made my top 3 with ease. During my second listen, I had already decided this is a classic and most likely the best album I would have heard all year if it hadn’t been for that memory of mistakenly feeling an empathy with Deacon Blue. Why couldn’t I have got into The Blue Nile’s ‘Hats’ that summer? Put it down to misguided youth and the chart orientated policy towards stock in a provincial record shop that shunned the word indie rather than ‘dinghy’.

From the atmospheric title track onward, it is obviously going to be an evocative journey with just piano, minimal string sounds with maybe the occasional horn accompanying a vintage croon as an elemental synergy is used to capture the singer’s feelings for a woman who is seen everywhere. The buttons on her coat, memories and her presence in mid air create a melancholic tone but one which could also suggest contentment. Marriage is referred to but not necessarily the result, perhaps the relationship ended but remains with the singer still and, though this is somewhat maudlin, he does not necessarily find this crushing. Instead, this woman is everywhere as she seems to have passed from the concrete into the abstract somehow – maybe it was the trapeze accident or, hopefully, that’s a metaphor as the song also states ‘only time can make you/ The wind that blows away the leaves. Has she becomes Hardy’s ‘(The) Voice’? It all seems very personal to me rather than the observations of a “bemused bystander” as suggested elsewhere, then again a highly effective persona always seems personal and, at some psychological level, must be. I guess it’s like separating the methodology from the psychology as I recall a German actor who played a Nazi once say.

A reference to ‘the virgin birth’ in the first track is continued into Saint Martha in ‘Half the World’ as well as a reference to ‘the astronaut in God’s good sky’ which suggests a meeting of the human and the celestial though not as incongruous as to suggest man taking on the role of God. However, the story of Martha and her brother, Lazarus, may give this song a more personal dimension as the album was written in the aftermath of the death of a close friend. Clearly he or she, the ambiguity is retained throughout, is now seen everywhere if we follow ‘Mid Air’ and yet this ‘astronaut’ of ‘Half the World’ is waving his last goodbye.

Religion and family seem to play a central role in the themes of the album and may be suggested at other times. In ‘Mid Air’ ‘the girl I want to marry/ upon the high trapeze/ The day she fell and hurt her knees’ maybe a convenient rhyme or could suggest checking out of the circus to turn to religion where the praying can indeed hurt the knees. It may also be stated that the quiet nature of tha album does not necessarily lead to a depressing experience though beginning ‘Wedding Party’ with ‘It’s a good day for a landslide/ there are tears in the car park outside’ may suggest otherwise and the song eventually develops a picture of a depressing argument between a couple attending a wedding.

‘Mid Air’ has a poetic if minimal feel to its lyrics. The working title was ‘Minor Poets of the 17th Century’ after a poetry anthology Buchanan purchased from Oxfam. I have already suggested Hardy’s influence on ‘Mid Air’ whilst the astronaut of ‘Half the World’ seems to echo Yehuda Amichai’s ‘My Father in a White Space Suit’ numerous other links or similarities can be found. ‘Wedding Party’ and ‘Cars in the Garden’ seem to have echoes of early Larkin without the shock of profanity which is perhaps unnecessary in the post-Larkin age of poetry. ‘Two Children’ could be Plath or Hughes on parenthood, though again this could suggest a doomed relationship – Plath and Hughes as a couple would certainly fit as the characters in ‘Wedding Party’ any road. However, amidst all these rather gloomy links, it must also be said that the lines and their rhymes have a rather childlike quality that would suit Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’. The imagery seems deliberately basic at times almost giving a child’s perspective in places or, possibly, the numbed perspective of grief. The latter is suggested by background information that tells us the album was written in the early hours (or ‘wee small hours’ to link with Sinatra when he wasn’t a happy bunny) after the death of a close friend as mentioned previously. The fact that something gorgeous emerges from this grief may reflect the way we come to terms with grief as I understand it – the seventh stage: acceptance and hope.

I guess this album also wears age on its sleeve with references to children and the past and yet it is hard to imagine that its beauty would not have an effect on a younger audience too even if that may negate any potential commercial clout. In some ways it reminds me of ‘The Magical World Of The Strands’ by Michael Head and the Strands, though this album’s disappearance seemed a foregone conclusion from the moment it appeared yet the beauty is there in this case shimmering through a haze of quite dedicated heroin use and, even more damaging for the soul, an initial appearance as a Dutch import. There is no suggestion of a druggy dimension to ‘Mid Air’ just a poetic album that may get left behind in the modern rush for bombast. ‘The Boatman’s Call’ has also been mentioned by reviewers but I feel Ol’ Nick would strangle the beauty of these songs with his rudimentary baritone. Elsewhere I have read of this album being the point where Paddy McAloon and Tom Waits meet. While it has none of the larger than life persona suggested by the latter, it would be great to hear a similarly stark album from Prefab Sprout. Mark Hollis could perhaps do something similar if he pulled himself together and stopped relaxing on Talk Talk royalties generated by Gwen Stefani and her ‘pals’.

I also love the brilliant consistency in terms of chart performance represented by the performance of each Blue Nile release and this solo album. Whilst debut album, ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’, only made 80 in the album charts, the 4 subsequent studio albums have been released about 7 or 8 years apart with chart positions varying between 10 and 14. Nice and dependable, much like a couple arguing at weddings but happily raising children whilst dreaming across the rooftops to elsewhere. On the other hand there is also a sense of the end of life and the end of the relationships. What I like a lot about the album is the happy blending of the concrete and the abstract, the surreal and the mundane and also, as just referred to, the dependable and a sense of ending. Not only does this make the album enjoyable, but researching every review led to uncovering lots of profound comments which sometimes reveal very little (well, this is music journalism so what do cynics expect?). The Irish Times** sounded confident in stating that the title track was brief but with a ‘vivid aftertaste’ and yet quite what was so vivid about this synesthesia they managed to leave to the imagination. Was it the buttons? If she is ‘The Chocolate Girl’, then maybe but I hope she isn’t.

* – As tight as a…

** – The album creates this ambiguity not poor journalism. It’s that good is my point. Maybe my poor journalistic skills have created further ambiguity…I’ll shut up now.

A slight apology to Deacon Blue – the grating nature of your music is personally irritating once it becomes a memory of something bought that I wished I hadn’t (see  first footnote). At least you’re not Danny Wilson or China Crisis.