Allow me to be cynical for a moment. Imagine you are a leading A&R type from a major record label. In the front pocket of your designer suit jacket is a small, but neatly preserved list of five items, given to you on day one. The great thing about this list is that it takes away all the hard work of your job: if all items are ticked, you blow the entire yearly budget and get signatures down faster than a post office on pension day. The title of your musical and career holy grail? How to spot the next biggest singer-songwriter.
On the list: good looks (not in a drug addled rock ‘n’ roll kind of way), strong regional accent (preferably from anywhere in the British Isles outside England); young; repertoire of catchy, radio-friendly songs about common themes (love, loss etc.) and, if possible, able to hold their own with an instrument of choice (two ticks for acoustic guitar and piano).
You should have by now spotted a theme. Nearly all of the mainstream bound artists, whom half-Scottish, half-Italian Paolo Nutini is joining whether he likes it or not, have these ‘qualities’. More importantly, they make a shed load of cash for major labels, desperate to find the next James Blunt and infiltrate every suburban CD player in the country.
Shameless typecasting? Perhaps. But it doesn’t take a musical genius to work out that while the next Elliott Smith (and if you go to enough open mic nights you’d think there were hundreds of them) might be lurking somewhere in a toilet venue, with virtually no exposure because they aren’t photogenic, get wrecked and sing about it surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke and empty bottles.
So where does this leave young Paolo? To begin with, These Streets is a safe, reliable and for want of a better word, bankable, album. At no point does Nutini approach arrangements, subject matter or delivery in a way that hasn’t been done a million times before and several times better. There are upbeat acoustic pop-rockets (opener Jenny Don’t Be Hasty), heartfelt ballads (Autumn Leaves, Last Request) and those in between tracks that don’t really go anywhere (Million Faces). The subject matter veers from predictable (girl doesn’t like me) to standard (the death of a relative personified by nature) to frankly tired (I’ve just moved to a new town and I don’t know anyone).
His saving grace here, and ironically the biggest disappointment is Nutini’s vocals. His thick Scottish accent comes over like the bastard offspring of Rod Stewart and Ryan Adams, the former’s passionate growl, with the latter’s delivery. It sounds great, and if you disregard the stereotypes and look for talent alone, it’s here in abundance. The problem is, that while the boy can howl and croon as well as anyone, you want to hear brooding, dark tales of disrepute from it rather than songs about trainers (New Shoes) and soppy FM ballads.
There is no doubt that Paolo Nutini has the right attributes to be a successful solo artist. There is also little point in arguing that, with the kind of heavyweight promotion and air play he is likely to get, that These Streets could sell by the truckload. It’s a waste of potential on Paolo Nutini’s part, and another facet to the ever-depressing saga of mainstream singer-songwriters who sit more comfortably next to mocchachinos than they do real angst, torment and passion for their art.