Wow In Music – The Downtown Lights
Editor | On 19, Dec 2018
I’m writing this at 3am, soft rainfall and ambient lightning flashes outside suggesting, at last, a break in the unstoppable summer weather, and all I want to do is stroll down to the street corner in my local town to catch retreating car lights dance off scattered pools of rain water in the road. I never did this before I saw the video for The Blue Nile‘s “The Downtown Lights” in the early ’90s, but I’m still stuck with the mental image of Paul Buchanan ambling through the neon-lit video set, singing those love-drunk opening lines:
Sometimes I walk away,
when all I really wanna do is love and hold you right.
There is just one thing I can say: Nobody loves you this way…
Among post-punk and new wave bands, The Smiths are surely the most quotably incisive authors on the human condition, and I don’t mean it as a condemnation when I say their music’s often too busily inventive, the words too on-point, for them to be the band for all depressive seasons. I used to reference Morrissey’s lyrics all the time, but his band doesn’t always get pole position when melancholia strikes. The Go-Betweens wrote about love and love lost from an earnestly poetic, adult perspective, largely forsaking cinematic grandeur for indie guitar angularity. Both of these artists should fill any good, left-of-mainstream heartbreak playlist. But no-one matches peak performance Blue Nile, and few songs measure up to “The Downtown Lights” from their classic 1989, second album, Hats.
The opening passage is incredible. A shimmering fanfare that sounds like the moon bursting through the clouds. Simple keyboard strokes and measured percussion set to a walking gait. Gorgeous reverb accentuating the high-end – what Trouser Press aptly called the “pristine click” – while a ghostly, held keyboard chord glimmers throughout. There’s not a hell of a lot of melodic detail, but the sum of parts makes for a beautiful, hopeful start. The (Principle 2) minimum number of notes to create the maximum emotional connection.
And then, Buchanan. They’ve compared him to Sinatra, you know. His tinder-dry, weary voice bends under the emotional toil, an everyman voice for the ages, taking the simplest of words and making them sound profound by dint of exquisite phrasing. The verse delivery is sublime, but to these ears the song’s obsessive middle eight (“How do I know you feel it? How do I know it’s true?) is the (Principle 18) hook. Behind Buchanan, the music ebbs and flows to match his wavering confidence, shading from a warm, fuzzy glow to spare, chilly uncertainty, but my God, man: when he bursts into that exultant (Principle 38) “yeah, yeah, yeahhh,” I really do think the world’s going to be alright after all. The song breaks down and rebuilds towards the outro, a perfect four-and-a-half minute single, but it’s sorely missing a phenomenal coda I need to tell you about…
…Just past the five-minute mark of the even-better album version, the incandescent swirl of synths evaporates as clipped, funk-style guitar drops in like an unwanted gust of cold air (Principle 17). Cue one of Buchanan’s soon-to-be trademark impressionistic half-spoken, half sung tone poems, encroaching sobriety sparking a frustrated array of images pulled from his boozy stumble around town, neon-lit streets, rental cars, empty bars, chimney tops and trumpets, his voice growing ever-more exasperated while the music builds again, to peak with a magisterial shout:
I’m tired of crying on the stairs!
The downtown lights!
So beautiful. It gets me very time.
Next time the rain’s splashed an impressionistic glow across your city streets, why don’t you slip out and take a peek at the transformation of the downtown strip a few hours after the last bar’s closed: a couple of taxis roaming for last fares, the hum and buzz of tired neon, the faint echo of yesterday’s perfume, a sampling of lonely wanderers looking for answers to questions unasked, questions unanswered. See what Edward Hopper saw. Look up at the downtown lights…
Chimney pots and trumpets.
How do I know you feel it?
How do I know it’s true?