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‘Caustic Love’: Behind Paolo Nutini’s Bold And Adventurous Third Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Caustic Love’: Behind Paolo Nutini’s Bold And Adventurous Third Album

Sharp-tongued and full of vigour, Paolo Nutini’s third album, ‘Caustic Love’, broke a four-year silence from the Scottish singer-songwriter.


After taking a long break between albums, Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini made a highly anticipated return with his third studio album, Caustic Love, in 2014. A masterful blue-eyed soul record, Caustic Love was a spirit-driven venture that marked a departure from the vintage pop sound of Nutini’s previous efforts, displaying a grittier and more eclectic style influenced by funk, R&B and 70s soul.

The album also found Nutini coming into his own as a songwriter and lyricist, writing or co-writing every track on a work that channelled his life experiences and poetically explored his romantic setbacks. Thanks to Nutini’s robust yet refined vocals, the album received widespread critical acclaim and re-established the Paisley-born star as one of the UK’s finest singer-songwriters.

Here is the story of Caustic Love and why it stands the test of time as a pivotal moment for Paolo Nutini’s increasing maturity as a songwriter.

Listen to ‘Caustic Love’ here.

The backstory: “I think my body might’ve needed a bit of life nutrition; I had to expand my mind a little bit”

Still reeling after his second album, Sunny Side Up, sold over one and a half million copies in the UK in 2009, Paolo Nutini made the difficult decision to take a much-needed break from the music industry. “I needed to be back home and with the people I loved and outside of this music world,” he told Variance magazine.

Returning to his childhood home, in Paisley, Scotland, where his parents ran a chip shop called Castelvecchi, Nutini, reeling from the breakup with his childhood sweetheart, Teri Brogan, took up new hobbies such as carpentry and venturing out into the Scottish Highlands to do a spot of amateur photography. Coming down from a whirlwind of publicity after being signed to Atlantic Records at the age of 17 and supporting Led Zeppelin for their reunion show at the O2 Arena, Nutini relished the chance of finally taking some time out and getting back in touch with himself.

“I liked the fact that there was no schedule and no pressure. It’s nice to feel you’re not being challenged all the time,” he admitted to Paul McBride in an interview with mX. “I think my body might’ve need a bit of life nutrition; I had to expand my mind a little bit.” Seeking further nourishment, Nutini opted to go travelling through Europe, visiting some of the cities that he’d previously toured but had little chance to fully explore.

“I did all this free roaming,” Nutini told Big Issue magazine. “I was just wandering around and taking some pictures, embracing the culture, putting myself out there and trying to be sociable. Looking for adventure really.” Time away from the music business left him feeling recharged and replenished, enabling Nutini to reset his body clock as he turned his mind to creating his next album.

The recording: “There was just no plan. We didn’t know what we wanted, or if I actually wanted to make a record”

Recorded over a period of several years in a variety of recording studios across Scotland, Ireland, England, Spain and North America, Caustic Love was a long-gestating passion project. After writing a handful of songs with Brian Eno collaborator Leo Abrahams, Nutini settled in for a batch of recording sessions at SARM Studios – formerly Basing Street Studios – in East London, hallowed ground where Bob Marley had worked on The Wailers’ Catch A Fire and Exodus albums, back when the facilities belonged to Island Records.

Among the new songs Nutini wrote for Caustic Love was Looking For Something, a lushly arranged ballad containing sage words of wisdom spoken to him by his mother (“Sometimes you’ll rise, and there’s time you’ll fall/After all, you’re just blood and bones”). “Obviously I picked the more poetic and romantic of the advice she used to give me,” Nutini joked to Big Issue. “It wasn’t, ‘Get your shoes off the fucking carpet, son,’ or, “Fucking stop that racket up there,’ or, ‘Stop scratching yer baws.’” The song creates a sense that Nutini’s leave of absence had helped him recharge his batteries, enabling him to get back in touch with what truly mattered.

Without a firm schedule to work to, however, Nutini was unsure whether any of these recordings would make the final cut. “There was just no plan,” he told The Skinny. “We didn’t know what we wanted, or if I actually wanted to make a record.” As a result, much of the early material Nutini recorded for Caustic Love has yet to see light of day. Unsure of which musical direction to take, the songwriter experimented with a sprawling batch of eclectic material, much of which was punkier and more aggressive than the songs he’d previously recorded in his soulful safe zone. “There was a song a bit like Everybody’s Happy Nowadays by the Buzzcocks,” he told The Independent of the album’s offcuts. “I was also listening to a lot of Richard Hell And The Voidoids, a lot of Squeeze.”

For a while, Nutini even contemplated the idea of releasing a series of EPs instead of a full-length album, but he was persuaded against it. “There seems to be an awful lot of ceremony attached to every release,” he further explained to The Independent, “so I’m not led to believe it would be OK for me to throw out EPs of diverse material all the time the way I’d like to.” Although Nutini remained loose and unrestrained in his creativity, his R&B-leaning songs were more authentic and from-the-heart than any others that came out of the Caustic Love sessions.

Flying over to Sunset Sound Recorders, in Los Angeles, Nutini embraced the opportunity to dabble in a more hard-edged, funkier sound by duetting with R&B maverick Janelle Monáe on the song Fashion, and he even fulfilled a personal dream by working with the legendary Motown session drummer James Gadson. One of the songs recorded with Gadson was issued as Caustic Love’s lead single, in January 2014: easily one of the best Paolo Nutini songs, Scream (Funk My Life Up) was a wild and sultry-voiced blast of salacity that channelled the gut-punching spirit of 70s R&B. Peaking at No.12 in the UK, this revelation of a song marked Nutini’s welcome return to the pop charts after a four-year absence.

The release: “If I’m not making music that’s honest and true to myself, I think I would eventually hate it”

Released on 14 April 2014, Paolo Nutini’s hotly-anticipated third studio album, Caustic Love, debuted at No.1 in the UK and sold 109,000 copies in its first week, becoming one of the year’s fastest-selling LPs. Featuring songs that wrestled with Nutini’s breakup from Teri Brogan, the album was named after Nutini’s view of love as being a volatile yet vital energy resource. “In love, you can be scared, beaten, lost; you don’t want to make mistakes, do you?” he told The Irish Times. “Love eats away at the defence mechanisms, the things that hold in your vulnerabilities. But at least you’re feeling something.”

On slinky R&B cuts such as Numpty, Nutini grapples with his relationship difficulties by reflecting upon his commitment issues and the uneasy prospect of fatherhood (“But all the talk about the ring and the baby/Gets me every time”). Elsewhere, on the album’s second single, Let Me Down Easy, a snippet from a 60s soul cut of the same name by Bettye LaVette is sampled to underscore Nutini’s groove-heavy meditation on his breakup woes (“We are broken by others/But we mend ourselves”).

From fun forays into hip-hop-influenced skits (Bus Talk, Superlfy) to passionate excursions into blue-eyed soul (Better Man), Caustic Love saw Nutini wear his multifaceted R&B and soul influences on his sleeve, dressing up his heartfelt lyrics with a timeless sound that rang truer to his life experiences than anything he’d recorded to date. “If I’m not making music that’s honest and true to myself,” Nutini admitted to Variance magazine, “I think I would eventually hate it.”

Perhaps the album’s crowning glory was the trip-hop-meets-Marvin Gaye protest anthem Iron Sky, a slow-burning soul ballad full of brassy swells that addresses the injustices of the modern world. “We’re slowly – or actually, rather quickly – becoming more reliant on machines and devices instead of people,” Nutini told Variance. “And the wars going on, no one wins. It only leads to more war and more catastrophe. It makes me wonder where we’re heading as a society and the kind of world our children will live in.”

Using a sample of Charlie Chaplin’s anti-racism speech from the 1940 film The Great Dictator, Iron Sky has amassed over 113 million streams on Spotify to date, and it still endures as a powerful pro-equality call-to-arms. Like John Lennon’s Imagine before it, Nutini’s song carefully avoids the trite pitfalls of politically-conscious balladry with a soul-stirring defence of our common humanity, going on to peak at No.43 in the UK following its release in August 2014. Adele would later describe Nutini’s Abbey Road live performance of the song as “one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life”.

The legacy: “This is from my soul. It’s true to who I am. And that’s enough for me”

As the dust settled on Caustic Love’s release, it was clear that Paolo Nutini’s four-year break had done him the world of good. “It was important for me this time to sharpen my skill and really find my place in this crazy industry,” he admitted to Variance. As a result, the legacy of Caustic Love is that it gave Nutini both the time and the space to make a work of lasting quality on which every detail was impeccably fine-tuned.

This was amply demonstrated by the album’s final single, One Day, which was released in November 2014 and had been inspired by Nutini’s trip to his father’s ancestral homeland. “I went to a little village in Italy where my family’s from, in Tuscany,” Nutini told Interview magazine. “It’s a little medieval town nestled into the mountains: a lot of cobblestones, a lot of narrow alleyways, steep gradients.” The eerie vibe Nutini got from his stay subsequently found its way into One Day, which is why the song’s promo video references Italian giallo films and combines Nutini’s 70s soul influences with neo-gothic gravitas.

After selling over 600,000 copies in the UK, Caustic Love has come to be regarded as the one of the best Paolo Nutini albums: a work of burgeoning maturity that built upon its creator’s past successes with an effortlessly cool and thoroughly modern retro-soul master class. At the same time, the album was refreshing in that it saw Nutini continue to cut his own unique path through the music industry, avoiding the temptation of chasing the bright lights of contemporary pop and R&B. “If I wanted to be a pop star, I probably could have written something different a long time ago,” Nutini has said. “But when I put out this album, this is from my soul. It’s true to who I am. And that’s enough for me.”

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