Listening to Paul Buchanan
“There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain
It’s just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today”
Beautiful lyrics from a beautiful song. And nothing to do with Paul Buchanan, the subject of today’s piece. These words are from ‘Héjira’ by Joni Mitchell and occurred to me just now as the best way of introducing what it is I particularly like about the music of Paul Buchanan. I love his melancholy.
Which is different to sadness or misery or heartbreak and definitely a long way from tragedy. It’s ‘as natural as the weather’ and has always seemed to me to be an essential element of my life. Some days are melancholy, minor-key kinds of days. Days for keeping warm, drinking tea and looking after yourself. Days in the shade, shadow days, away from the busy-ness and brightness of changing the world or even of radiant happiness. Quietly reflective. Days for listening to Paul Buchanan.
Which I’ve been doing for half my life now. I’ve bought all of his albums, which isn’t saying much. In thirty years Paul Buchanan has made five records.
But they’ve all been perfect for me. And that’s what I’m writing about here. The beauty and comfort of music you can live with. You can read all about the ups and downs of Paul Buchanan and the band he made his first four albums with, The Blue Nile, on Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat any of it. The story’s just background to the music.
It’s mid-evening and dark and I’m driving back from Manchester along the M56, thinking about life and listening to a cassette of The Blue Nile’s ‘Hats’ album (yes, it’s a long time ago). The thing I’m thinking about is whether it’s time to leave. Whether something that’s been joyously good has now run out of joy. I turn off the motorway at Runcorn just as the track ‘From a late night train’ begins to play. And the song is me, the song is mine:
“It’s over now,
I know it’s over now,
But I can’t let go”
I drive half a dozen times round the big roundabout there before taking the exit to Liverpool and to the rest of my life.
Years go by and I have met the love of my life. It’s the day of our wedding, we are in a place up near Malham Tarn with family and friends when we play them all our song, our special song, our wedding song. At a moment of radiant happiness we play them a quiet gospel song about the fragility of love. The Blue Nile, ‘Happiness.’
“Now that I’ve found peace at last,
Tell me Jesus,
Will it last?”
And the happiness does last. So seventeen years later it’s last night and Sarah and I are sat in our living room. I put the LP on the turntable and we sit in companionable silence, listening to Paul Buchanan.
“Dance along the edge with me,
And we’ll see as far as we can see,
My true country wild and free,
My true country you and me”
This newish record is the most delicate thing he’s made in his life. Mostly piano and quiet. And mostly melancholic. Quietly living in the shadows of a life that clearly has great joy in it, but one where he writes his best songs on the days when there are ‘storm clouds above our garden.’
When he finished singing last night we didn’t want to listen to anything else. But if we had it would have had to be Debussy or Fauré or Satie or ‘Héjira’. For us he is that good. And for the rest of my life now, if he never makes another record, there are these five perfect ones he’s already made that I’ll listen to when the welcome days of quiet melancholy arrive.