Caustic Love is the first album of new material from multi-platinum singer and songwriter Paolo Nutini since 2009’s Sunny Side Up. On that album, the whiskey-voiced Scot explored retro-soul and R&B piecemeal, weaving them into his pop palette. In the interim, the 27-year-old has been soaking up the soul and funk sounds of Motown, Atlantic, Stax, vintage New Orleans, Daptone funk, and more.Co-produced by the artist with engineer Dani Castelar, Caustic Love was recorded with a large band in Glasgow, Valencia, London, and New York. Its songs, drenched in libidinal energy, are framed inside a sound that’s gritty yet sonically rangey.
“Scream (Funk My Life Up)” evokes the psychedelic funk of the Temptations. Its reverb, breaking snares, fat basslines, chunky guitars, churning vamp, and crisp horns buoy a vocal that oozes sexual desire. “Let Me Down Easy” places Nutini in a midtempo duet with a Bettye LaVette vocal sample; he does his best Marvin Gaye to match her emotion. “One Day” recalls “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” layered with strings, rumbling percussion, furious bass, with an eerie spooky B-3 a la “Good Vibrations,” and a female backing chorus, and offers a nod to Sam Cooke; Nutini’s vocal soars between crooning and growling.
“Numpty” owes a debt to songwriter Allen Toussaint and singer Lee Dorsey for using the melody in “Working in the Coal Mine.” “Better Man,” the album’s hinge-piece, is one of the few tunes here that showcases Nutini as an emotionally intuitive singer/songwriter. It suggests the hungry Caledonian soul of the young Van Morrison, illustrated with a large female backing chorus, acoustic and electric guitars, and a knot-tight rhythm section. Single “Iron Sky,” is an indictment of religious institutions as systems of control; it contains bluesy, slippery psych-funk and unfolds gradually, gathering steam with big brassy horns and crashing cymbals framing the singer’s dramatic delivery and contains an extended sample from Charlie Chaplin’s monologue from the Great Dictator.
“Fashion” is greasy funk with Janelle Monae adding a fiery feminist rap to the middle. “Looking for Something” pays homage to D’Angelo’s nocturnal g-funk soul. “Cherry Blossom” is a lusty psych rocker with a guitar riff that suggests the Cult’s Billy Duffy, while the mix recalls Echo & the Bunnymen in the late ’80s. Closer “Someone Like You” finds the singer accompanied only by a bass in a Dion-esque early rock & roll ballad, though a stacked set of Beach Boys-style harmonies in chorale style floats in before a harp whispers it out.
Caustic Love is all about vintage sounds; its fine songs and provocative mix pay service to that stunning voice. While this set uses retro styles almost excessively, it is a thoroughly contemporary pop record in approach and execution. It takes real nerve to pull something like this off, but Nutini’s swagger is easily matched by the quality of the material and his inspired performance.