Against all the odds I have become a fan of Paolo Nutini, or at least a fan of his new album Caustic Love, a promo copy of which was given to me by a friend a few weeks ago and which, I have to admit, sat around unopened on a pile of CDs in our living room for a while because I’d dismissed Nutini as being a bit soppy, in the mould of the Jameses Morrison and Blunt. Then, having noticed how well it was selling, I finally took off the shrink-wrap the weekend before last and gave it a spin. Either I was completely wrong about him before or he’s raised his game a lot, and I suspect the latter.
For what I have since learned is his first album in five years (I haven’t been paying attention), he unveils a gritty, soulful style and whisky-addled voice that owes everything to the great soul and R&B legends of the 60s/70s but blends it all into a very likeable today, and while it must be said that he wears his influences of his sleeve like a giant illuminated roadside billboard, those influences tick all the right boxes, for me anyway.
They’re all here, Sam Cooke, Marvin, Al Green, The Drifters, Prince and even Rod Stewart whom I suspect would be more than pleased to have come up with an album this good himself. Similarly, his band has taken its cue from the Stax and Motown house bands of the 60s, with guitar, bass and drums all echoing the feel of an era in which the line was drawn for this style of pop. But there’s a reverence here that I appreciate, a respectful nod towards these heroes and ample evidence that Nuntini has spent his five year lay-off listening to music that he felt might give him a relevance that, for all his previous success, his career thus far lacked.
The record opens the single ’Scream (Funk Up My Life)’, a lively blast of horns with a sexy lyric on top, but the stand out track for me is the heartfelt, soulful ballad ‘Better Man’, a lovely song about being chastened by the love of a good woman. Introspective and unfussy, it might even have been a Willie Mitchell production, though the wistful understatement of its early verses, which echo Al Green’s wonderful recordings for Hi between 1971 and 1973, is cast off when the choir kick in to bring the song home with an irresistibly epic backdrop.
Nutini’s newfound raspiness aside, parts of both ‘Iron Sky’ and ‘Diana’ sound like they could have been recorded for What’s Going On, and the former stakes a claim to being the album’s key song with its sound clip from Charlie Chaplin’s dramatic oration at the end of the Great Dictator. It’s certainly sincere but it’s a bit overwrought for my tastes. I preferred the subtlety of ‘Diana’, the looseness of the bass as it tiptoes amidst the quiet exhilaration of a man who knows his tender dreams have been realised.
The oddest influence is surely 1987 Echo & The Bunnymen on ‘Rose Blossom’ on which the guitarist blends the recurring line from ‘The Game’ into a song that eventually sees Nutini channelling his inner Jim Morrison in much the same way that Ian McCulloch was prone to do. The album closes on a laid-back note, easing the tension with a relaxed ballad, ‘Someone Like You’, which utilises the bass line from The Drifters’ ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ and is all the better for it.
One of the joys of having your own blog is that I only write about albums I like. Caustic Love is such a record and if Nutini maybe sometimes gives the impression of a man still casting around to find his real direction, this is that giant illuminated billboard showing him the best way to go.