A review of Paolo Nutini’s Sunny Side Up (2008)
I’ll say it right up front: I think this is a great record. A great record that got a bum rap. It’s not that the critics didn’t (at least more or less) grasp what this is about, but few cared enough to focus on how fabulous the music on this CD is and instead pointed out how it was commercial suicide, how his reach was far beyond his grasp, and how inconsistent it is.
Yet what’s most striking about this album is how unconditionally, unashamedly musical it is. It sounds like music made by someone who wants to share the sheer joy of his songs with the world. The reviewer at musicOHM gets it somewhat right when he says, “Sunny Side Up is bonkers in a good old-fashioned English sense and Nutini’s devil may care attitude should be applauded by all right-minded lovers of artistic sidesteps.”
So I’ll do some applauding.
The comparisons are many: Otis Redding. John Martyn. Maybe a spot of Johnny Cash. Cat Stevens. Van Morrison. For me, the reference that comes to mind most often is Bryan Ferry. It’s not just Nutini’s warble, his overtly melodic, full-throated soul croon that reminds me of Ferry. It’s his songs: songs that don’t particularly care whether they’re of their own time. I’m reminded of how, on The Bride Stripped Bare, Ferry made all manner of genres his own and somehow managed to produce a coherent classic that didn’t relate at all to the prevalent records of the time. All slick suits and glam, most of Roxy Music’s 1970s output is, of course, directly opposed to the trends of the day. Throughout all that opposition, though, it shines by virtue of its sheer musicality, its musical daring. Its warm embrace of both classic 60s soul and European cabaret comfortably meets somewhere in a very likable middle.
“Everybody’s got opinions, girl. Their own version of a good idea.” Things start off with an old-fashioned ska tune sung in an Otis Redding rasp. ‘Ten Out Of Ten’ is a classic dating story: Paolo takes his girl out on the town to cheer her up because she’s feeling down. It’s a dance tune, this. Not one anyone under 35 would consider dancing to (I think), but a dance tune nonetheless. And a perfect, perfect little gem of blue-eyed ska. Beautifully played and recorded, too.
‘Coming Up Easy’ continues the classic soul theme. Not particularly deep lyrically, but Nutini is skilled at mimicry and hits the tone of classic r&b quite accurately. The finale, “It was in love I was created and in love is how I hope I die,” repeated over and over, reminds me of Van Morrison’s ecstatic blues shouter workouts on-stage circa It’s Too Late To Stop Now.
‘Growing Up Beside You’ is a pretty melody and offers a soft, folkish, slow-roller with mostly forgettable lyrics; something about a crush on a girl in school.
No matter, because we swiftly move on to the album’s pièce de résistance: ‘Candy.’ What an extraordinary song! They’re rare, songs like this. This is note-perfect middle of the road radio rock with a laid-back, country feel. Perhaps a good description would be Bryan Ferry singing over a typical early Dire Straits arrangement. It’s quite unclear what Candy is about: a love story, perhaps, a plea to stay together after all. No matter that it’s unclear because all good poetry merely approximates precision and instead offers words that confuse, intrigue and delight at the same time. And ‘Candy’ offers the best opening lines I’ve heard in a song in years: “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. Although not the most honest means of travel, it gets me there nonetheless. I’m a heartless man at worst, babe, and a helpless one at best.”
‘Tricks of the Trade’ is lovely in that folky way: “You took me from my bubble, knowing my defense was weak. And you sat there and you listened, anytime I chose to speak.” A core truth wrapped into a few insightful words. Lovely and smart. On to what’s perhaps the strangest track here: ‘Pencil Full Of Lead.’ It’s a classic swing/rockabilly number with breakneck lyrics sung in a thick Scottish drawl. It’s wacky and it’s not everyone’s kettle of fish. But it’s good in a way that’ll make you look back on this record fondly in 20 years as a lost classic, and you’ll wonder why people didn’t love it the first time around.
‘No Other Way’ is more classic Bryan Ferry/Van Morrison (somewhere in the middle, actually) heartfelt blue-eyed soul, beautifully played but quite a lot over-emoted. Did I mention Nutini has a ‘warbly’ voice? Well, when he pushes it too much, it has a few kinks that aren’t entirely pleasant. He doesn’t quite have the young Van Morrison’s uncannily perfect pitch.
‘High Hopes,’ ‘Chamber Music’ and ‘Worried Man’ combine folk and various 1960s/1970s sounds (like Johnny Cash’s story songs) and offer perfect Nutini versions of these kinds of song. They’re always more than just exercises in writing music that’s just like something else that we already know; what’s clear from each tune is how deeply Nutini actually feels this music, how fervently he wants to render his own take on each archetype. The results range from pastoral hippie tunes to Waterboys’ style pseudo-Celtic material. (Nutini, while from Scotland, can certainly not be accused of making traditional music.) Finally, ‘Keep Rolling’ is a sad maritime swansong, a lover’s goodbye that spends almost half of its two and a half minutes in an unidentifiable, electronic, ambient warble and sees the album out quietly.
My prediction is that Sunny Side Up will grow to become one of those records that we fondly look back on for its immense musicality and daring. And for its commitment to Paolo Nutini’s own vision, expectations be damned. Graeme Thomson, in the Observer, said that, “One day, when his undeniable talent has settled and set, the results could be wondrous.” I beg to differ: they already are. But we, as listeners, need to remember what we loved about our eclectic favourites from the past to fully appreciate it.