Sunday, August 5, 2012

Paul Buchanan, Mid Air (Newsroom Records, 2012, Deluxe Edition)

For the frontman of a well-known band to release his first solo album more than thirty years into his musical career is surely a rarity, to say the least.  In fact, Paul Buchanan of the celebrated Scottish trio The Blue Nile, which originated back in 1981, might be the only singer/ songwriter who’s waited quite so long to make his solo debut.  His re-arrival with Mid Air is a thoroughly unique and sublime affair, easily my favorite album thus far this year, and maybe the quietest lyrical pop album ever recorded.

Featuring just a delicate piano and Buchanan’s distinctively contemplative vocals, barely registering above a whisper here, these songs together form the equivalent of an intelligent lullaby for adults.  Nearly all of the album’s fourteen songs are under three minutes long.  The Blue Nile became famous in the U.K. for an extremely high level of quality control; the first two of their four exquisite albums contain only seven songs each.  Leave it to Paul Buchanan to create the world’s smallest, most intimate album.

Or not so small, perhaps, in the case of Mid Air’s deluxe edition, which includes ten extra tracks that are unavailable elsewhere, mostly instrumental versions of the album’s highlights, along with three bonus songs.  Strictly limited to 2,000 numbered copies (mine is #589), this special box set quickly sold out and was soon going for astronomical prices of $400 and upwards on eBay.  Gorgeously designed in every detail, the 7-inch box also contains a 20-page booklet with handwritten lyrics and impromptu photographs taken by Mr. Buchanan himself.

Mid Air is certainly a kind of self-portrait, and a self-portrait in the waning years of middle age.  It’s no coincidence, then, that he’s the only musician who appears on the album.  Song titles like “Wedding Party” and “Two Children” make it obvious what station in life Buchanan is singing about, and the mournful tone of his reminiscences also make it clear that all may not have gone as he once expected.  The record feels as if it’s constructed around the concepts of change and loss, especially the album’s opening title track:  “The buttons on your collar / The color of your hair / I think I see you everywhere… / I can see you standing in mid-air.”

Despite how seamless the album sounds, “Newsroom” is among its standout tracks, so perhaps that’s why Buchanan chose that name for his independent label that released the record.  “Last out the newsroom / Please put the lights out / There’s no one left alive,” Buchanan somberly sings; “No one to make love to / No one to blame.”  Mid Air is, without question, a dark-of-the-night album, and also an end-of-the-world album (“Half the world has gone to sleep / Half the world is on its knees / Dreaming of somewhere else”).  But its songs bravely face what’s to come, rather than despairing over it.  Buchanan’s music has always fostered a sense of wonder in the human inability to shake off the stubbornness of the past, thereby finding a way to sustain ourselves in surviving the present.

Sonically, there are many audible touchstones that link these songs to The Blue Nile’s back catalog.  They often seem like tiny sketches for such contemporary classics as “Easter Parade” and “Family Life,” though written two or three decades later.  It’s as though Buchanan is acknowledging his musical past while also gradually letting it go.  That helps to explain Mid Air’s sense of hushed hesitation, too, a quality that annoyed me a bit on my first listen, but eventually grew on me over time.  Like all the finest works of art, the album convinces its audience to encounter it solely on its own terms, which also happens to be the artist’s way of giving back something to us.