AH, these charming Blue Nile men. Despite having made us wait so long for any new Blue Nile music - since 1989's Hats album, in fact - we cannot help continuing to love them keenly. Self-deprecating, heart-stealing twinklers they remain.

We congregate in the same Glasgow restaurant where first we met 12 years ago. As ever, Paul Buchanan is much prone to imploding with laughter, his face a picture of helpless rumpled jollity. P J Moore is temporarily absent, forging a path in film scores, although present in our thoughts. In frequent outbreaks of self-mockery, Robert Bell chuckles his baritone chuckle.

Our communal mirth is fitting because there is joyousness to report about the Blue Nile. On May 28 they will release their third album. Lordy, it is done. Order your copy now. As yet untitled, the LP will be the first for the Nilies' new label, Warner Brothers. It sports 10 tracks. ``We're talking serious value for money here,'' deadpans Robert.

It was made with what Paul calls the usual cast, including engineer Calum Malcolm and peripatetic drummer Nigel Thomas. Additionally, the album features string players as well as sparing contributions from a group of special guests from Los Angeles.

So why the especially-long time since the last album? ``We do appear somewhat less than prolific,'' admits Robert. ``Could you not pretend the last album came out in the early nineties?''

In fact, the early nineties were when the Blue Nile began crafting their current LP. Initially, they were becalmed by legal to-ings and fro-ings between their old label, Virgin/Linn, and their current one. Thereafter, the Nilies opted to find living rooms - nay, living, breathing rooms in which to record, rather than sterile studios. It was not a straightforward job.

``We went to Italy, looking at rented flats we could set up in, and found that Italy was lovely, but far too easy-going,'' says Paul. Weeks went by. ``We passed through a former Armenian priests' college on a canal in Venice; Edward de Bono's island; an apartment with no ceiling; the old Venetian arsenal, with soldiers sniggering at us as we inspected cellars filled with piles of rubble.

``We were looking at one tiny Venice flat when in hobbled the littlest, oldest little old lady any of us had ever seen. `But we're a rock'n'roll band,' I pointed out. `It's OK . . . she's deaf,' the letting-agent replied.''

Whole countries were similarly deemed unsuitable for the Blue Nile's purposes. Denmark? Naaah. ``We saw a Danish hotel basement with a ghost; a castle; a doctor's house in Copenhagen's suburbs that it took weeks to get soundproofing costings for.''

France? A room in the Pompidou Centre in Paris? Non. Recording finally took place in three main locales. A small Parisian art gallery-cum-theatre; the shell of a Dublin recording studio which had been stripped and left unused for two years, and Chick Corea's studio, pleasantly finished in wood, in LA - ``although of course we then cunningly chose to live hours away on the other side of town''.

Has all this fruitless globe-trotting been symptomatic of a deep-rooted traumatic psychological Blue Niley malaise, and that type of malarkey?

``The Journey . . . the Spiritual Quest. Obviously a metaphor,'' states Robert, looking doubtful.

``What for?'' asks Paul. They ponder. Finally they decide: neither of them knows. We all giggle.

Few folk, other than you Nilies, plus Mr Warner and his brothers, have heard the new album yet, so what's it like?

``Different to the first two,'' says Robert. ``It won't sound worked on. The idea was to have it more visceral without sacrificing any of the emotional content. It's not as angular as the first album, and not as airbrushed as the second.''

Paul takes over. ``In nuts and bolts terms, there's more guitar. There's more acknowledgement of other musics . . . we allow other musics to filter through, whereas the other two albums are deliberately not referential, and as absolutely fresh as possible. Oh, and the album is about God, sex and families.''

Yes? ``After all the travelling and all the incredible interruptions, it was `Let's make a 1-2-3-4! album'.'' Only the count-in kept on rising higher than anyone had anticipated, Robert adds.

Listening to the Blue Nile will still constitute a religious experience, though? ``A rougher religious experience,'' says Robert. ``Depending on what religion you are,'' adds Paul.

What have you learned from the whole process? Robert reckons he's learned enough about property to be able to set up his own real-estate business. Paul? ``Follow your instincts and expect very little,'' he says with unexpected sombreness.

Cheer up, laddie. Despite your own absence from the musicbiz front line, I'd have expected that the inclusion of Blue Nile songs on Annie Lennox's mega-selling Medusa album would have maintained your music-industry profile quite handsomely.

Paul is unsure that anyone noticed. He only knows that Annie Lennox is a brilliant woman. He then tells an emblematic story. ``I did a TV show in Paris with her not that long ago. En route, I fell over and nearly missed the plane. Glamorous. There had been frantic last-minute scenes at the check-in desk, and then a long wait in a departure lounge.

``I must have been day-dreaming, because all of a sudden I was the only person left sitting there. I'd my suit on a carrier-hanger, and I set off towards the gate, which had been closed with a red cord. As I bent to duck under the red cord, the hanger caught in my trousers, and over I went. I do things like that often, and very easily.''

Our Paul. He's Stan Laurel, he is. But what can we divine of the Blue Nile's immediate future from the recent past?

``Looking back, it seems hilarious, but we ended up ragged and punchdrunk. And it gets harder to find the moment,'' says Robert. ``The whole thing's like an episode from someone else's life. Things that should have taken two minutes ending up taking two weeks. But I don't feel foolish, just humble.'' There is a silence, a mood of regret and loss. It does not last long.

Paul speaks. ``And I don't feel humble, just foolish!''

With great pride, I can offer reassurance for everyone who's a righteous fool for the Blue Nile. They are back again. They are still here.