If The Blue Nile were the most profoundly and resolutely humanist of the early eighties studio pop groups (“discuss…”), theirs was most definitely a technologically savvy brand of humanism; the gleaming electronic surfaces of their songs evoking a glittering city of the near-future, wherein humanity is not radically changed but, rather, radically changeless
, fundamentally grounded in the timelessness of emotions. For The Blue Nile, there was no world past or future in which the question “Do I love you?” cannot be asked, or answered affirmatively.
The potential futurism of The Blue Nile is an aspect of their music that is tempting to pass over; listening to the burnished, gauzy atmospherics of 1989’s Hats
, it’s easy to assume that the trio’s ultimate desire was merely to sound expansive and expensive, and that they dabbled in electronics because they were handy rather than because they placed any emphasis in them. This is partially true, of course: I never get the sense that there was a conscience aesthetic of futurism at work within their music, and it’s entirely possible that their songs could just have easily been made with a conventional guitar-based set-up. I suspect though that if that had in fact been the case, their music would have lacked its essential strangeness, that remarkable emotional and sonic bravery that make their first two albums so compelling even now.
The spare, experimental production on 1983’s A Walk Across The Rooftops
tells the story best, the overlapping and interlocking patterns of piano, string pads, samples, electronics and especially found sounds rendering nervous and unpredictable the grand inevitability of the choruses and refrains. If The Blue Nile’s songs are triumphantly unified, this unity is a simplicity containing within it worlds of complexity and difference - the final love song of a city that plays host to countless private love songs, in the hiss and clatter of the trains and the muted chatter on the streets. It’s this contradiction that allows their first two albums, along with the first side of Kate Bush’s The Hounds of Love
, to sound like the lost heralds for a stillborn movement: a combination of eighties pop modernity with a grand, stirring but utterly individual romanticism - a ZTT for the heart.
Upon first listening to their first album Silverware
, I pegged Coloma as reinvoking The Blue Nile’s project (if it can be called that) through the lens of Bark Psychosis - by which I mean that the their sonic approach (simply put, atmospheric indie + micro rhythms) was not purely utopian but rather suggestive of a potential utopia. In retrospect though, there’s a crucial difference between Bark Psychosis’ and Silverware
’s approaches: namely, that Bark Psychosis checked their reliance on aural beauty in order to lend what was there a wistful sadness, a sense of paradise lost, an appreciation for ambiguity that they probably learnt from Talk Talk. Silverware
, in retrospect, seems to check its reliance on aural beauty out of some unnecessary reflexive tendency towards austerity. Microhouse beats are present but deemphasised and self-deprecating, choruses are frequently absent, and almost everything is drenched in mournful organ drones. Again in retrospect, all these decisions seem tremendously unwise.
I wouldn’t have concluded any of this though without hearing Coloma’s new album Finery
, which is not only an astonishing improvement on the duo’s first album, but also puts aside any lenses and wholeheartedly resurrects The Blue Nile’s blueprint for romanticist experimental pop. Listening to the simple joy that infuses so many of these tracks - the wistful “You Are Here”, the plaintively optimistic “Summer Clothes”, the breathtakingly panoramic “Welcome to Arcadia”, the enraptured “Coat of Senses” - it’s hard to believe Coloma ever thought the dour blues and greys of their debut were an adequate frame for their vision.
Sonically, their songs are almost completely transformed: the former static beats and mournful drones are replaced by wonderfully precise, frequently jaunty rhythms and a lustrous web of electronic sparkles, piano chords and warm guitar. It’s no coincidence that this description is remarkably close to the one I used above for A Walk Across The Rooftops
; the way both albums approach the use of sound is startlingly similar. As with The Blue Nile, Coloma’s formal sonic context (microhouse?) seems to have less and less bearing on their work, not because Coloma are explicitly moving away from the sound of their label Ware - if anything the underlying house carriage is stronger, and the vaguely muscular groove of “If You Can’t Be Good” and the slow-burn disco of “Illegible Love” demonstrate an increased appreciation for house’s physicality, although I also detect hints of Plaid and Boards of Canada this time around - but because the songs themselves are so clearly etched out, so openly courting the perception of timelessness.
Whereas on Silverware
the musical vision seemed to weigh heavily on the songs themselves, here there is a seamless and organic relationship between arrangement and song, with the latter always perfectly complemented (rather than augmented) by the former. Coloma use intricate electronic arrangements the same way that The Blue Nile did - because it helps them to better visualise the world of their songs. “If You Can’t Be Good”, for example, makes allusions to the taut, rigid friction of the dancefloor with its surly bass riff and slashing snares, but its glorious, dramatic choruses so thoroughly dominate the song that the “aggressive” groove resembles a translucent mask through which the song’s face peers out. On the one hand, that muscularity is crucial to the song, providing the tense drama that frames singer Rob Taylor’s portrait of an unscrupulous, vivacious muse. On the other hand, it is not by itself the arranging or even dominant force within the song; it is content to play a supporting role in the service of the whole. I’m reminded of Disco Inferno too – that uncanny ability to resolve conflicting musical elements into something quite purposeful. But Coloma have bigger choruses than Disco Inferno had, which makes the effect much more pronounced.
I’m mindful of not relying on my chosen point of comparison too much, as there are pretty substantial differences. Coloma are perhaps less naïve than The Blue Nile, more prone to moments of knowing irony, as much reminiscent of Martin Gore’s gentler moments of desire (not innocent desire, but a desire for
innocent desire). Maybe it’s from Gore that Rob Taylor draws the almost rococo flourishes of his lyrical concerns, which are part Tim Rice neatness and part intricate observation. “I could hear the drummers drumming at the head of the parade,” he sighs on “The Tailor”, the album’s most unabashedly lyrical moment, “I saw you coming as I watched the whole charade/all dressed up in your finery and with somewhere to go/I asked you do you know me/you said you don’t think so/I was the dapper dresser/in my buttonhole a rose/I’m the tailor who sews the emperor’s clothes.” This is typical of Taylor’s style: a heady, almost unpleasant concoction of bird’s eye detail, metaphor and cliché, literary and mystical allusion, and above and beyond it all a poetic precision that’s almost inhuman.
Check the perfect intersection of rhyme and alliteration in the chorus of “If You Can’t Be Good” – “if you can’t be good/be beautiful, be brash/if you can’t be good/be radical, be rash/be insolent, inspired/be decadent, desired/be everything I knew you would/if you can’t be good.” It’s the emphasis on craft as well feeling, coupled with Taylor’s compulsive urge to “set the scene”, that gives Finery the feel of an unfolding musical, with each song pointing to a moment of emotional transcendence, of transformation, crisis, resolution. “Welcome to Arcadia” – a song whose unfolding beauty reminds me of nothing so much as Bow’s glorious “Royalise”– explicates the musical idea by appearing as a self-conscious “opening number” (actually it’s track 4), complete with a shopping list of carefully assembled details (“decaying iron railings/deck chairs set out in rows/orange rust sticking to my fingers/I hail the humped back and hooked nose/past the death star and horatio’s bar/shivering in the stiff sea breeze/in the pale end of the season sun I look through the scratched lps/older than the birfs and bees…”) that cycle around the simple refrain of the title, “Welcome to Arcadia…”
This, Coloma are saying, is the basis of their particular utopia: a profusion of small lives and stories building to almost unbearable interwoven complexity. The tendency toward classicism that complements their musical modernity is not like the simple timeless of The Blue Nile; rather, it appears almost archaic in its mesmerising specificity. This time-distortion (or, rather time-communion
) achieves the same end, however, in positing the future as the stage upon which we shall continue to live out age-old concerns. The song remains the same; the sounds change.