Paolo Nutini's new album displays a musical sophistication that sets it apart from his debut.
Paolo Nutini: Sunny Side Up
Listen to Paolo Nutini's new album from start to finish and it's fairly certain that your first thought will not be: "What a cheerful delight of an album," though that should dawn on you later. No. First you will think: "How on earth does a 22-year-old boy from outside Glasgow make himself sound like Bob Marley's long-lost brother?" Because, for at least half of this 12-track album, he sounds just like him.
In reality, although he's half-Italian, the singer's accent is as Scottish as haggis and rain. He is the fourth generation of a fish-and-chip shop owning family in Paisley. Nutini's metamorphosis must, however, at leasy partly be put down to the critical reaction to his debut album, These Streets, released in 2006. Tracks such as Jenny Don't Be Hasty and Last Request seemed to be targeted at those who created playlists devoted to those mournful balladeers James Blunt and James Morrison. Though a commercial success, Nutini was written off by many as another in their shape, as authentically romantic as a Hallmark card.
Consequently, among the part of the musical community that takes itself too seriously, there existed deep scepticism about Nutini's new effort, Sunny Side Up. Despite the knowledge that it was being overseen by the Kings of Leon producer Ethan Johns (the son of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones producer Glyn Johns), there lay a general assumption that it would be just another piece of pop puffery.
But all those NME-reading sorts lost hope too soon. It is often said that the legendary founder of Nutini's record label, Atlantic Records, was one of the first to spot his musical dexterity after he was discovered at a talent contest in Paisley, and signed him up at 18. Ahmet Ertugun, responsible for crafting the careers of artists such as Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, consequently just watched and let the young star develop his style.
What has resulted is a messy, glorious jumble of an album, from ragtime to blues to soul and Scottish folk bundled together with pop melodies and a whole lot of husky mutterings from Nutini's matured voice. There are flutes, bouncing guitar chords, ukuleles and growling shades of Van Morrison, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. It is an entirely different sound from that of 2006, and one can only presume that it's the result of chain-smoking Gauloises cigarettes every day between recording sessions.
Nutini's blinding new incarnation is apparent from the first track, 10/10, a reggae-infused opener in which Nutini sings for the heart of an unnamed girl. Well, unnamed in the song. But, as with These Streets, much of the material takes the form of a love letter aimed directly at Nutini's childhood sweetheart, Teri Brogan. "I was perched outside in the pouring rain/Trying to make myself a sail/Then I'll float to you, my darlin'/With the evening on my tail," he sings poetically to her in Candy, a melancholic pop track with echoes of The Waterboys. It's the most marketable song on the album, so unsurprisingly it has been released as the first single. But its hot-blooded yearning is still leaps ahead of all his previous singles.
"All I really want to do is to provide songs that people enjoy," Nutini told The Sunday Times last month. "I didn't want to focus on the economic crisis and all the miserable stuff that is being bandied around. Everything is a disaster. Everybody's money is running out and it's hell. But nobody I know mopes around or is broken." Galling, you might think, to take lessons in personal finance from an internationally successful musician, but Nutini has the kind of grounded background and sprightly optimism that makes such assertions believable. While love is the dominant theme, his general exuberance for life and its perversities leaks into other tracks. "I got food in my belly and a licence for my telly/And nothing's going to bring me down," he sings jauntily in Pencil Full of Lead. The album isn't titled Sunny Side Up for nothing, you know.
Performances alongside soul greats such as Ben E King, George Duke and Solomon Burke have done much to encourage the hope that Nutini is following in their musical footsteps. That might sound like excited hyperbole, but then the young Scot has succeeded in creating one of the most spirited and honest albums of the year so far. It's so accomplished, in fact, that it's tricky to find anything to complain about - perhaps that the total playing time lasts only 38 beautiful minutes. But that's a complaint that speaks volumes about the musical sophistication that Nutini displays here. After all, when have you ever heard anyone moan that a James Blunt album is too short?