Many have privately wondered or have loudly entered pseudointellectual debate about what this current…
Many have privately wondered or have loudly entered pseudointellectual debate about what this current period of music will be remembered for – but without much degree of success. The ‘80’s will always have synths and big hair; the ‘90’s in their turn will always have caramel RnB and boy bands in crop tops; and the early 2000’s will be remembered for artists trying far too hard and the many stages of Britney Spears’ complete meltdown. The answer, it may turn out to be, is nostalgia for these times. Sadly, for Paolo Nutini, borne of those seemingly indefatigable 2000’s, this nostalgia is not boundless. It does not justify what sums up to a mix-tape of recorded studio cuttings from his These Streets (2007) and Sunny Side Up (2009) sessions that has resulted in the broodily packaged Caustic Love.
Nutini’s third album seems stuck in a distant time when he could sunnily abuse the fondness we had for his carefree ditties about frivolous purchases in the height of the financial crisis with the infectious, ‘New Shoes’, or soulful ponderings on the etiquette of break-up sex on the sensual, ‘Last Request’. But now under the eco-friendly and fluorescent lights of 2014, when we needed his blithe tunes most, Nutini’s latest contemplations don’t leave us feeling quite as warm as they used to.
Truthfully, our sentimentality was exhausted in just processing the foreign mood on the somberly titled, Caustic Love. What ever happened to the faultlessly optimistic Paolo Nutini with the smoky voice that rose and roused like a gentle urban hymn? Suddenly, this Italian-Scottish boy-wonder is no longer a boy. He’s 27 and the clock is ticking on his Julian Casablancas circa-2005 haircut.
We are of a time wherein we are tolerant and even deferential of many things of which we shouldn’t be; lewdness, sloth and egotism all among them. But on Caustic Love, Nutini has done the one thing that seems to be unforgivable – almost frighteningly: he’s failed to progress. He’s stagnated. Invariably, transience is a requisite of any artist and patience is in short supply.
Nutini’s failure to transplant his husky brand of funk and soul to 2014 seems to be less reluctance and more ignorance. It’s only been 5 years since his last release, yet there are instances on Caustic Love where Nutini seems completely out-of-touch, like man who’s served a decade long prison stint, only to emerge skeptical and shocked at the disappearance of flip phones. But then there are other instances where he and his guitar are all at once timeless and classic, faultless really, and then suddenly like a persistent fly, a superfluous and ridiculous choir chorus or a dissonant synth flare enters the melody. Like a poorly fit prosthesis, he dependently uses these tricks to slowly hobble his way through the 13-track album.
The lead single is called ‘Scream (Funk Up My Life)’ and it sets a precedent which the rest of album too easily follows. Seemingly, it’s the familiar package of Nutini in his soulful and funky guise, yet this illusion is shattered quickly by an absurd burst of synths and a dated drum line that provide unlistenable cheesiness. He is further contradicted by lines like, “A girl so fine you want to scream, ‘Hallelujah!’” He once had a great knack for drawing from multiple influences – like neo-soul, funk and blues – because they so effortlessly breathe life into a track if helped along by a unique and fervent voice, much like Nutini’s. Yet the attempt at soul here is a wholly limp – so much so that even the joyous chorus of back-up singers (a familiar tactic by the time we reach the album’s halfway point) cannot manage to revive it.
Disappointingly, this is also the case on ‘Fashion’ which would have been the most promising track here. Featuring Angel Haze in his live performances of the song, it only culminates in a poor impression of the likes of Prince or James Brown. With its impotent bass line and faux-sensual crooning of, “She’s my queen… this lady she’s the real deal”, it comes off more like a creepy uncle’s touch than sexy. The guest rap by Janelle Monaé who is a fantastic choice for in vogue collaborator has one hopeful, but it’s ultimately a painful listen by the time the track nears its blessed end.
What’s sadder is that this album has been 5 years in the making, and Nutini seems to have become newly self-conscious of his place in music and the wider world. He wrung out every ounce he seems to have in him on this album to give it a distinct “atmosphere.” Yet, where artists like Sun Kil Moon and Mac DeMarco have succeeded in making the task sound charming and honest, Nutini seems to be second-guessing himself at every step. Clearly apparent in the inexplicably pitch-shifted conversation sample that is ‘Bus Talk’ and further compounded by the nonsensical interlude/instrumental that is ‘Superfly’ right in the middle of the album.
Attempts to redeem himself come in tracks like ‘Iron Sky’, ‘Better Man’ and ‘One Day’. ‘Better Man’ starts with a quietly strummed guitar and the ardent platitudes that somehow feel whole and tender when delivered as a stripped down vocal performance in Nutini’s signature style. But then inevitably, that dreaded back-up choir (that’s probably been booked per recording session block) makes another unwelcome appearance and suddenly the whispered platitudes become just that and the electric guitar diddle is a little too common-place and familiar. These all blur into drabbles of homespun witticisms that aren’t all that witty by the time they’re harmonised for the third time.
‘Iron Sky’ and ‘One Day’ both run a little too long, clearly destined and tailored radio edits and talk show performances. The former features a hearty vocal delivery, but the excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator about “returning power to the people” is the clearest sign that Paolo Nutini has taken his task and himself entirely too seriously. And who could blame him really, with some zealous Scotsmen claiming that the barely hinted at nationalist agenda could be the one of the anthems of the Scottish independence. Though it’s crass to be unforgiving, it must be fairly said that spoken lines like, “Me and super girl smoking my green,” might not win him a place on the short list for national heroes any time soon.
What’s ultimately discomfiting is his indecision on this album. ‘Diana’ is his simultaneous impression of both James Blake and Plan B and he ends up landing somewhere in between, awkward and gangly. Being stubbornly unfashionable and irreverent is a trick that has worn thin, and his attempt to both please and seem like he isn’t seeking to please, has resulted in an indecisive in-between. He hovers painfully between two extremes for all 13 tracks – his voice uncharacteristically oscillating between being unswervingly sharp or flat, and his style between being unconvincingly hip or politically loaded.
Paolo Nutini is a man self-conscious of a previous fame, and in losing his devil-may-care swagger he has exposed a young man with a unique voice, but rather ordinary songwriting and composing skill. Youth and potential were apparently not indelible. He’s seen his proposed task to bring himself forcibly to the present as a gargantuan and on track after track, like Sisyphus, he tries and fails. Falling – inevitably, depressing – short of that mark he has set. Sonically and thematically, there is no uniform purpose or direction of the album. Sadder still is that he’s geared to release another, “similarly themed” album as soon as possible and has adapted his performances of old songs to fit this mould, too. The mould of a new Paolo Nutini who feels jaded, disappointed, and old at just 27, and still he’s hardly any the wiser for it.