Hats follows the template of the first album closely: seven tracks, mostly around the five- to six-minute range, alternating upbeat tracks with slower numbers. All feature yearning lyrics and aching melodies, and it’s really hard to put into words the emotions they convey. The basic instrumentation consists of synthesizers, guitar, bass, trumpet, percussion and the soaring vocals of Paul Buchanan.
“Over The Hillside” creeps in with electronic drums and (fake?) strings, but the effect isn’t as cold as on their first album. By the time the song winds up you’ve got the sensation of riding a train going home (more on that later). “The Downtown Lights” was a moderate hit in the UK, and got even more notice when covered by Annie Lennox and Rod Stewart, both of whom followed the impressionistic arrangement to the letter. Just when the song seems to be winding down, an extended coda kicks in with incredibly picturesque imagery. “Let’s Go Out Tonight” closes what was once considered side one on a melancholy note, with a slow, ticking beat and stairstep guitar over sad piano accents. There’s an undercurrent of tension, accented by the repeat of the first verse an octave higher.
“Headlights On The Parade” has elements of the techno-pop sound that was all the rage in the ‘80s, but transcends it (again) with the vocal. While all these songs are stunners, “From A Late Night Train” is probably the album’s high point. It’s quite evocative of the scenery one could see south of Boston from the window of the Amtrak—to suggest just one mind movie of the thousands of candidates available worldwide—the streetlights shining on waterways and wet pavements. The entire lyric bleeds regret, leading right up to the breakdown of the last line. The switch from the minor to the major-seventh at the end is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but they pull it off.
After all that, “Seven A.M.” is a little monotonous; they must have known this when sequencing the album, as there’s several seconds of silence before it stumbles in. And while “Saturday Night” doesn’t live up to the potential of what has come before, the last minute or so, while repetitive, always leaves one wanting more.
Hats is truly one of the hidden gems of the ‘80s, arriving in what turned out to be a pretty good year for albums that have endured. It’s also another wonderful album for quiet evenings and rainy mornings, and it can be enjoyed even if one hasn’t been wallowing in self-pity. As with many classic albums, the eventual expanded remaster didn’t uncover any real gold, save a few alternate takes, one unreleased song (the underwhelming “Christmas”), a live version of “Headlights” and the okay B-side “The Wires Are Down”.
The Blue Nile Hats (1989)—4½
2012 Remastered Collector's Edition: same as 1989, plus 6 extra tracks