In his essay The Blue Nile: Family Life, Marcello Carlin observes that “on every Blue Nile album there is a moment where time is literally stopped and emotion laid open and bare”. Eight years on from The Blue Nile’s previous – some say last ever – album High, frontman Paul Buchanan has finally delivered the solo album that many long-time fans have anticipated. Buchanan’s Mid Air consists of thirteen, three minute, piano-led songs and one instrumental that get to the heart of Carlin’s astute observation.
Recorded by Cameron Malcolm (son of long-time Blue Nile producer / engineer Calum), the success of Mid Air is largely down to the compression and brevity of these thirteen songs and instrumental, all of which are as condensed and companionable as short lyric poems. The minimal arrangements that adorn each tune eschew the sometimes too slickly produced, glossy feel of later Blue Nile records. The opening title track features a beautifully restrained vocal from Buchanan, underpinned by light, electronic, orchestral strings. Like Tom Waits – whose common influence of Frank Sinatra looms large – Buchanan delicately croons and plays simple, elementary scales to stunning, emotionally intense effect and most evidently so on album highlight ‘Cars In The Garden’.
Originally given the working title of Minor Poets of the 19th Century (after a book Buchanan bought in his local Oxfam) the literate lyrics recall Larkin (‘Wedding Party’), Plath (‘Two Children’) and Yeats (‘My True Country’). Prior to recording the album a close personal friend of Buchanan’s passed away, so it’s no surprise that lyrically the tone and mood is elegiac. Buchanan, however, extends the elegiac tone beyond bereavement; ‘Newsroom’ is a lament to 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 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, save for ‘Half the World’ and the sublime album closer ‘After Dark’.
With 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 modest arrangements and delicate, fragile, convincing vocals. A Mercury Music Prize nomination must, surely, be mid-air.