Eight long years have passed since Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini burst onto the scene as a young 19-year-old with his poignant love ballad Last Request. It was the first of a series of successful singles from his debut album, with Jenny Don’t Be Hasty, Rewind and New Shoes all performing well in the UK Singles Chart. The album itself, These Streets, also charted well – even if it did receive a rather damning one star review from this very site.
The follow-up, 2009’s Sunny Side Up, performed even better than its predecessor, topping the UK Album Charts on two separate occasions and receiving a nomination for Best British Album at the 2010 BRIT Awards. While it still failed to convince critics in quite the same way it did the general public, Nutini’s second effort suggested he had far more substance than his debut demonstrated, as well as a willingness to push his sound in new directions.
Five years on from Sunny Side Up, Nutini returns with his highly anticipated third album, Caustic Love. The lengthy period away may have helped add to the intrigue around his return, but he has clearly been spending his time wisely, with Caustic Love Nutini’s most consistent and adventurous set of songs yet. Those unconvinced only need to listen to the undeniably infectious and funky lead single, Scream (Funk My Life Up).
“She gets me sinning, she’s like a trick on me/ hell, I don’t even know her name but yet she sticks to me,” sings Nutini, with his now recognisable gravely vocals, as Scream gets the album off to a flying start. However, despite the song giving an indication of what direction Caustic Love is going in, it is one of the few moments where Nutini embraces his pop side on an album that is less interested in producing disposable, chart-topping singles.
It is clear from as early as second track Let Me Down Easy that Nutini is breaking new ground on Caustic Love, with the soulful, sultry number providing the perfect template for his world-weary vocals. In fact, the LP has much in common with the late Amy Winehouse – another artist who was know for her soulful sound and distinctive vocals. Take slow-burner One Day, for example, which sounds like it could have easily appeared on Back To Black.
The highlight of the record, though, is the brooding, six-minute epic Iron Sky. It is by far the best thing Nutini has ever done and the centre piece of Caustic Love, with its sweeping strings and swelling brass combining to add weight to his soul-bearing vocals, as he yells: “And we’ll rise, over love/ over hate, through this iron sky that’s fast becoming our mind.” The use of Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator provides even more drama to the closing stages of the song.
Following the emotive outpouring of Iron Sky, Nutini delivers another impressive slice of atmospheric soul in the stunning Diana, which relies largely on a minimal guitar hook and a trembling bassline. It’s a world away from the straightforward pop of New Shoes – as is the funky, upbeat Fashion, where Janelle Monáe provides a slick verse over the chunky hook. Meanwhile, Looking For Something is much more familiar territory, with Nutini’s raspy vocals set off by soaring strings and the nonchalant guitar riff.
Although Caustic Love does have a couple of throwaway tracks, for the most part it is an impressive and highly accomplished return. Considering we have grown up with him since his debut record, you could say it is his coming-of-age album – if you want to be cheesy about it. The reality is that after the scattergun approach of Sunny Side Up, Caustic Love is the sound of Nutini finally finding his groove and producing a record that lives up to his talent.