Songs that saved your life: The Blue Nile – “The Downtown Lights”

click image above to play clip

THE BLUE NILE – The Downtown Lights (1989)

I’m writing this at 3 a.m., soft rainfall and ambient lightning flashes outside suggesting, at last, the advent of summer weather, and all I want to do is skip down to the street corner 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 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…

It’s fitting The Blue Nile follow Sinatra in this blog because very few bands of the rock era – if any – do late-night soul searching as well as Ol’ Blue Eyes.

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 reference Morrissey’s lyrics all the time – they grow more profound the older I get – but his band doesn’t always get pole position when melancholia strikes. OMD and New Order wrote thoughtful songs in this vein, wisely allowing simple wordplay and imagery to adorn, rather than dominate, their ruminative numbers. The Go-Betweens wrote about love and love lost from an earnestly poetic, adult perspective, largely forsaking cinematic grandeur for indie guitar angularity. All of these artists should fill any good, left-of-mainstream heartbreak playlist. But none of them match peak performance Blue Nile, and few songs measure up to “The Downtown Lights.”

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.

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 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 “yeah, yeah, yeahhh,” I really do think it’s gonna be alright. 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. Cue one of Buchanan’s soon-to-be trademark impressionistic raps, encroaching sobriety sparking a frustrated, half-spoken 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!

How do I know you feel it?

How do I know it’s true?

Next time the rain’s splashed an impressionistic glow across your city streets, why don’t you slip into your galoshes 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 electric wires overhead, the faint tingle of perfume and desperation, a sampling of lonely wanderers looking for answers to questions unasked, questions unanswered.

The highly recommended full-length album version  

The original UK video version  


“The Downtown Lights” was the lead single from the second Blue Nile LP, 1989’s Hats. Reaching #67 (U.K.),  it remains the best-known Nile song, no doubt aided by adult contemporary cover versions recorded in the succeeding half-decade by both Rod Stewart and Annie Lennox.


One response to “Songs that saved your life: The Blue Nile – “The Downtown Lights”

  1. Great piece of writing about a track by my absolutely favourite band of all time. Ever.

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