Just one listen to Paolo Nutini’s magnificent third long-player Caustic Love reveals exactly why it was worth the wait. It’s been five years since the towering success of its 2009 predecessor, Sunny Side Up, which like the 27-year-old Paisley-born singer’s 2006 debut These Days, sold a staggering 1.5 million copies in the UK alone. Described by Q magazine as “a truly excellent modern soul album”, it’s a record that acknowledges the classic music of the past while fixing its eyes firmly on the future. There may be echoes of some of soul music’s greats within the grooves of Caustic Love – Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, among others – but taken as a whole it’s a masterful creation which proves Paolo to be very much his own man.
To reach this point, though, Nutini had to return to his roots. After a long period on the road and in the spotlight, the singer travelled home to Scotland to gather his thoughts and plot his next move, while enjoying a long-deserved period of downtime and rest. “I wanted to spend a bit of time at home,” he says. “Just to reconnect with my family and friends. It only takes going home for a little while to put things in perspective.”
It was time well spent. In Scotland, Nutini refreshed his head by indulging his passion for photography, while enjoying new extra-curricular pursuits including carpentry and outdoors survivalism. “I learned how to carve things out of wood and fix things,” he explains. “Learned some nature survival stuff. Then I spent a bit of time wandering and retracing some of my footsteps to places I’d been on tour. Except I had the time to enjoy them and explore a bit.”
Even in relaxation mode, though, Nutini’s thoughts were filled with music, as the songs for what would become Caustic Love began to float into his mind. “I’ve been writing songs the whole time,” he stresses. “It wasn’t as if there was a ‘stop’ button on making music. There was a hunger for me to expand my knowledge of the production of music. I wanted to practice and explore and enhance my skills. For me, it’s all about progressing.”
Preliminary sessions for Caustic Love took place in Glasgow, in a former police training facility in the city’s The Gorbals. “It’s a building that’s owned by my friend’s father,” Paolo explains. “There were old jail cells and shooting ranges underground. We just wandered around and set up and recorded.” Joining him on this adventure were his co-producers for the album, Dani Castelar (Snow Patrol, R.E.M.) and Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry). “Leo’s a great guitarist,” says Nutini. “He was a big part of certain songs’ conception. Dani’s the glue. He made it happen.”
As recording progressed, Nutini and crew travelled further afield to work in a variety of different locations, including Dublin, Valencia and Los Angeles. Along the way, other key contributors added their colours to Caustic Love, namely Rollo Armstrong (Faithless), Barrie Cadogan (Primal Scream), Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello), revered bassist Pino Palladino (D’Angelo, The Who), legendary American drummer James Gadson (Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye) and Janelle Monáe, who added a stirring rap to the slinky funk of Fashion. In their own ways, each city and player leant something different to the resulting record. “That’s been the thing we tried to do,” says Paolo. “To fuse the experience of where you are with what you’re doing and who you’re with. You’ve got to catch things as they come.”
Caustic Love is an album of unforgettable songs and choice grooves, topped with Nutini’s gutsy voice, which just gets better and better with time and singles him out as arguably the best singer of his generation. This was proven by the live video (filmed at Abbey Road Studios) of the slow-burning, passionate politico-soul of ‘Iron Sky’, which scored almost two million plays on YouTube before the album’s release. After watching the clip, singer Adele took to Twitter to proclaim it “one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life”.
“It’s one of the tracks that’s got a more social and political undertone,” says Paolo. “It’s a way to say how I feel about certain aspects of society.” One of the inspirations behind this facet of the album was Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 futuristic film, Metropolis. “It’s the idea that the machine is taking over,” says the singer. “You get it sometimes when you use the auto-checkout in shops. You go to give the guy the money behind the counter and they point you in the direction of the robot version. Then I’m nodding towards how I feel about the amount of money that gets ploughed into war. Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a faceless, oppressive society and you’re trying to find the way out and the way forward. The waters are so muddied in front of everybody’s eyes.”
Another classic film proved to be a massive inspiration, providing the moment in ‘Iron Sky’ that makes the pulse race, namely the speech (“You are not machines! You are not cattle!”) taken from Charlie Chaplin’s brave Hitler-lampooning The Great Dictator, made in 1940 during the Second World War. After hearing the track, the film legend’s estate cleared the sample for Nutini to use. “I got to put Charlie Chaplin’s name on the songwriting credits,” points out an elated Nutini. “Great stuff. It was just like, Wow.”
Elsewhere, the naggingly addictive worshipping love song ‘Scream (Funk My Life Up)’ is, says Paolo, “an homage to somebody that’s flipped it all upside down for you and caught you off guard.” Meanwhile, soaring breakup ballad ‘One Day’, says the singer, was birthed by the thought that “it’s not always a rejection to walk the other way”, and in the similarly-themed ‘Let Me Down Easy’, Nutini duets with US soul singer Bettye Lavette in a sample from her 1969 hit of the same name.
Piece by piece, Caustic Love amounts to an album that will surely be viewed as a modern classic, right down to its open-ended title, for which the singer says there are many meanings. “It can sum up all the different kinds of love,” he explains. “The unrequited love, the new love, the lost love. It’s about that intensity. The warm acid rain that can cleanse you of all your pretences. It strips you and then you’re vulnerable, but to the good stuff as well. The beauty and the passion and the comfort. Then if it takes the other turning it can corrode the comforts and leave you vulnerable to the jealousies.”
As the latest thrilling chapter in the story of Paolo Nutini, these thirteen tracks spotlight the singer’s stunning musical development. “It’s been very experimental and creative,” he concludes. “It’s not been confined. There’s certain pressures and expectations that go on, and really, you do what you do. You’ve got to have something that you want to say and you’ve got to do it with conviction. With music, you realise just how lucky you are to have this great thing in your life.”
Much, it has to be said, like Caustic Love itself.