The album is an exercise in minimalism. At its most basic it’s synth-pop, using all the sounds available in the first half of the ‘80s, with a drum machine not yet advanced to sound real. The tracks are constructed like paintings, not as a set of chord changes upon which the lyrics hang. A few beats here, a guitar or bass line there, and a wash of keyboard combine for the general feel. Paul Buchanan’s vocals, straining just this side of proper pitch, express longing and other emotions wrapped in glamorous imagery borrowed from old movies. Sometimes they make sense, other times you wonder if he learned to speak English phonetically.
The opening title track contains all these aspects, and would seem to epitomize the album. It seeps in like fog as the narrator walks across said rooftops, before boldly declaring, “I am in love.” A distant trumpet adds some further color, and it fades away much the way it arrived. “Tinseltown In The Rain” is driven by a funkier rhythm, with enough of a hook to have it pass for a hit single. The bridge asks the pointed question, “Do I love you?” (The answer: “Yes, I love you.” Good to know.) The more mechanical “From Rags To Riches” is another symphony of randomly placed sounds; this time he’s sure to explain that he’s “in love with the feeling”. Not a lot happens for seven minutes.
“Stay” is a more straightforward pop song, though that pre-programmed fill is the aural equivalent of the Wilhelm scream. Possibly the highlight is “Easter Parade”, a quiet and pretty piano piece with the slightest of color and a vocal not too far removed from Bruce Springsteen. (Rickie Lee Jones re-recorded this with the band themselves, which makes them sound like her in reverse.) The final two songs evoke more of the factory sounds in their own unique ways; “Heatwave” is not the Motown classic, and “Automobile Noise” gives the feeling of silently leaving the city behind.
While a little cold, A Walk Across The Rooftops is a sneaky little album that succeeds in spite of itself. Truly, nothing really sounds like it, and its cult has grown steadily since its release. Enough interest in the album over the years led to the inevitable remaster with bonus tracks. While Blue Nile obsessives complained about what was left off (like the Rickie Lee Jones song), at least they could finally enjoy pristine digital copies of the band’s elusive first single, the gorgeous B-side “Regret”, and the phenomenal unreleased gem “St. Catherine’s Day”.
The Blue Nile A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)—3½
2012 Remastered Collector's Edition: same as 1984, plus 7 extra tracks