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Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

For the Record: Caustic Love by Paolo Nutini

In an era when artists – especially young artists – are increasingly dependent on the success of formulaic three-and-a-half minute singles to spark their careers, and the tops of the popular music charts are filled with musicians like Taylor Swift who make carefully crafted business choices that tap into the desires of radio stations, executives and lucrative demographics in order to prolong their longevity, bold and ambitious choices are harder and harder to find in commercially successful music.

There is, of course, something to be said for having enough music industry savvy to repeatedly produce albums that adapt to the ever-changing landscape of popular music – Swift’s eight-year, comfortably marketable career represents a certain brand of longevity only possible through a careful calculation of skillful business decisions – but adaptation in the name of conformity with expectations is a weak and, worst of all, safe, kind of evolution.

Scottish crooner Paolo Nutini released his first album when he was only 18 years old, gaining instant success with his decadently raspy voice that frequently draws comparison to the much more experienced Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker. If his first two albums definitively identified as safe adult contemporary and relaxed folk fare, Nutini’s most recent release, 2014’s Caustic Love, is an R&B album that draws on Nutini’s passion and intuitive talent for a decidedly American genre.

Nutini says that he has smoked marijuana every day since he turned sixteen, and indeed, the seductive growl of his vocals and subject matter often suggest the veracity of his claim.

After ten years of experience in the industry, with Caustic Love Nutini has emerged with confident control of his unique instrument and more bold musical risks comprising an artistic journey that begs to be listened to from beginning to end in one sitting, and then, if time allows, over and over again. Nutini’s rare vocal talent displays a bristling, three-dimensional vivacity bursting – no, crackling – with urgent emotional authenticity, demanding the listener’s sustained attention as he transitions between smooth, psychedelic crooning, notes that are both raspy and full of clarity and subtle details of enunciation throughout the album.

In one of the best songs on the record, “Iron Sky,” Nutini sings that “We find God and religions to,/To paint us with salvation./But no one, no nobody,/Can give you the power,/To rise over love, and over hate,/Through this iron sky that’s fast becoming our minds./Over fear and into freedom,” carefully enunciating “religions” with four syllables instead of three is just one of many stylistic decisions that reject listener complacency. A clip from Charlie Chaplin’s famous “Great Dictator” speech makes an appearance in the middle of the track, spoken by the comic actor himself at the end of his 1940 portrayal of Hitler in The Great Dictator.

Caustic Love is full of samples, like the inclusion of Betty LaVette’s original recording in Nutini’s cover of the 1965 R&B track “Let Me Down Easy” and an excerpt from “Giving Up” by Gladys Knight & The Pips in one of two interludes that mark transition points within the album.

Nutini’s record self-consciously draws on other art, pointing to and crediting his sources of inspiration as it confidently moves between tones as varied as Irishman Shane McGowan’s drunken, toothless lead of The Pogues to Rastafarian melodies and vocal stylings to the heavy use of female backup singers so essential to bands like The Rolling Stones at the height of their popularity. What is most impressive about Caustic Love is that Nutini boldly and successfully experiments with so many styles while still crafting a coherent and engaging album that logically flows from one track to the other as it remains, above all, authentically Nutini. From funky to falsetto, psychedelic to smooth, rock and roll to R&B, Nutini transitions effortlessly between genres in the space of just over an hour.

Nutini never panders – he knows better – yet both of his previous albums have been certified quintuple platinum. Caustic Love, though it features songs varying in length from two to seven minutes, achieved platinum status just two months after it was released and remained at the top spot on the UK charts for three weeks. In fact, Nutini is one of only nine artists who has topped the UK albums charts for more than three weeks since 2010 due to the successes of Caustic Love and his sophomore release Sunny Side Up, proving that the album as a form is not dead and that even in, and perhaps especially in, today’s digital marketplace, musicians do not need to conform to industry formulas to achieve longevity in a music career.

Nutini leaves the listener with the short, peaceful “Someone Like You,” which crystallizes the crooning capabilities of his vocals while cleansing the palate of the emotional ride of the previous 12 tracks. Though the song only has two stanzas, it is a perfect representation of everything that Nutini does best: skillfully communicating meaning in a concise time-frame, correctly choosing which vocal quality to distill for maximum emotional effect and surprising the listener with an unexpected musical addition, which, in the case of “Someone Like You,” is one excellently placed barbershop quartet-esque harmony in the second stanza. Above all, Nutini is subtle and bold, controlled and reckless.

“Someone like you isn’t easily defined/Or confined or even met eye to eye,/Just dare to be explored and then all the while adored/Someone like you/Someone like you…”