Some years ago I did a compilation tape for a friend. Musically, we didn’t have an enormous amount in common, so I was quite pleased that the songs I’d chosen met with her approval. One, though, was singled out for some harsh criticism – “that really miserable song about families and Christmas”.
A lot of tracks I’ve chosen to write about here have been pretty downbeat. I probably listen to emotionally ‘up’ or neutral music as much as I do introspective, depressing stuff. But I couldn’t deny that many of my favourite tracks are pretty bleak.
The Blue Nile’s first two albums are lauded for their clean, funk-tinged, melancholy pop. The third, Peace At Last, split opinion a little. It revealed more Gospel and R&B influences than its predecessors, and admittedly it was a little more uneven. But at its best it was as good as anything that the band had done and, if anything, Paul Buchanan’s vocals were stronger and more mature. It was around this time that people began to speak of him as a Scottish Sinatra – high praise indeed.
“Family Life”, the miserable one about families and Christmas, is a stunning song. It has a lush melancholy, but is as emotionally raw as anything you are likely to hear. The allusions to being a child witness of domestic violence are all the more powerful for being evasive – like the memory is too painful to confront head on. Buchanan’s vocal leaves little doubt as to how hard it is, though, as it cracks with emotion. The pleas to “make us happy sometimes” and to “wipe the tears from her face” are devastating. The song gets me every time I hear it, and I had an upbringing free from any trauma. I shudder to think how it would affect people who went through stuff like that.
Starlight do you know me
Please, don’t look at me now I’m falling apart
Silver on the window
Like the bike I once had at home in the yard
Jesus love let me down and I know where you are
It might lead somewhere
Gather me in snowfall
And the cars going by the north and the south
Flowers on the table
And the coffee gets cold like the milk in my mouth
Sailing on no honeymoon
Just separate chairs in separate rooms
Jesus, please make us happy sometimes
No more shout, no more fight
Tomorrow will be Christmas
We’ll be singing old songs and light up the tree
God and all the mercy
And say all your prayers for little old me
Jesus, you wipe the tears from her face
And the sound of his voice
Jesus, I go to sleep and I pray
For my kids
For my wife