Elvis Costello once wrote “music is more like water than a rhinoceros– it doesn’t charge madly down one path; it runs away in every direction.” I like this description– music as water. It’s especially clever because, though Costello was referring to the history of music and how it evolves over time, it’s also a perfect description of how music comes at us from every direction and thousands of sources every day, effectively soaking us with sound. Movies, television, radio, the internet, your obnoxious neighbors– you’re constantly showered with songs and it’s up to you to wade through the musical overflow to find those precious few gems you’ll let into your life and eventually grow to love. Some folks are determined to carve out their own path, so they block out the stream of constant auditory stimuli. Myself, I feel like I’m more of a sponge in that regard, absorbing all that I can from the tide of music that envelopes me.
One of my favorite and more dependable sources for good music is my friends. I’m lucky in that regard: I surround myself with people who live and breathe music, who know how a simple chord progression and a melody can shake you to your core. It’s important, I feel, for people in my life to have an understanding of that effect. Otherwise I’d come off as a gigantic weirdo, prattling on incessantly over what, to others, could be inconsequential and banal (which is probably how I come across when I try to explain my love for The Muppets). But, also, because they act as really effective filters: vessels through which I’m exposed to great music I’d probably never listen to otherwise. The enormity of someone who knows you saying “here, try this, you would love it.”
Several months ago, my friend Aly (one of my oldest and closest friends with whom I barely ever agree on anything musical, save for our shared appreciation for Kate Bush) made one of these contributions to my life, introducing me to the music of The Blue Nile. Specifically, their 1989 opus “Hats”.
“Hats” is a stunner of an album that displays pretty much everything that I love about 80s pop music– melancholic after-hours ballads with bursts of lush, richly orchestrated layers of swirly, sugary synth against an almost-mechanical rhythm section, stouthearted pop songs delivered with painstaking sincerity and unapologetically earnest sentimentality. And though the super-80s adult-contemporary production may be a turnoff for some, it works for these songs– they just need to sound like this.
With 7 tracks clocking in at just under 40 minutes, the album is remarkably cohesive musically and thematically– the songs share a common melodic space, and similarly baroque arrangements. In some ways, this feels like the 1980s, coked-out pop-music equivalent to Tom Waits’s “Heart of Saturday Night”– a sort-of-concept-album about the sizzle and buzz of the nightlife, the wide-eyed optimism of youth and the weary, dreary sulking of the lost souls who hang around the joint for too long. The songs in Waits’s record were set in dingy pool-halls and sketchy street corners, while the songs in “Hats” take place in nightclubs and hotel rooms. They explore the dynamics of the big city nighttime– the inherent loneliness of crowded bars, neon signs, a panoply of headlights rushing up and down the boulevard, cutting through the thin drizzle of rain; downtown lights finally flickering off as dawn breaks.
The entire album is a pop tour de force, but my favorite track is the plaintive closing number. It’s a mid-tempo synth-laden trudge-along with that very typically 1980s gated reverb sound– it’s not as instantly hooky as other songs in the album, but on the whole it’s a wonderfully captivating piece of music, with a crescendoing bed of strings underlining the fragmented vocal melody. It serves as a satisfying conclusion to the themes explored in the album, a denouement of sorts. The song is titled “Saturday Night”, but Saturday night is long over. It’s Sunday morning and daylight spills out on the streets as the nighthawks retreat back to their dwellings, contemplating the night’s victories and defeats.