Peace at Last
The Blue Nile
With Gone Again, Patti Smith comes out of more than 15 years of semiretirement; the poet who for years was associated with the start of something--New York art-punk, basically--now contemplates the end of everything, motivated by a spate of personal tragedies, most notably the deaths of her brother, Todd, and husband, Fred Smith.
Gone is nothing less than a masterpiece, a work that completely integrates the external considerations of music and the internal agenda of the artist. The most viscerally striking procession of images, tone, and emotion since Nick Cave's Henry's Dream, Gone forsakes the comfort Cave found in the distance that his Grand Guignol theatrics put between him and the listener; here, the narrator is Smith, and she allows--no, demands--an unchecked gaze into her heart.
Smith's voice--even taken apart from her brutally honest lyrics--has all the implied poetry of opera, whether widening in rage or constricting with pain and regret. One of the most nakedly brilliant transmissions of emotion to come down the pike--perhaps ever--Gone is the kind of stuff for which albums were invented.
After that, when the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan sings, "I want a love/but I'll never find the time" (from "Body and Soul"), his problems seem rather slight in comparison, but the British have long had a definition of "pop" that's both more honest and more cynical than our own, one that accepts the disposability of bands, the transitory natures of fame, and other ephemerae.
The Blue Nile is part of that definition's lineage of cool, precise pop bands that stretches back to masters like ABC and Roxy Music, and Peace has all the qualifiers: shiny production, elegantly structured songcraft, and lyrics that reflect a romantic approach to matters of the heart and hearth.
Previously the band sometimes fell prey to the genre's weaknesses, most notably a certain slickness that can cloud sincerity. Peace, however, avoids sounding facile by playing up Buchanan's emotionally resonant songwriting and distinctive voice, capturing a warmer, more organic sound. Moving along numerous acoustic reference points, it's a sound Buchanan has correctly described as the sound of recollection, a piano playing from a dimly recalled living room. It's a warmth that perfectly matches the subject matter: the heart's travails, the persistence of its memory, and its capacity for hope.