Paolo Nutini: “Sunny Side Up”
Sunny Side Up, Paolo Nutini’s second record, is more than a little old-fashioned– and not just because nearly every song sounds like it could have predates the Beatles. No, it isn’t just because the record sounds old— it’s that it’s a kind of record nobody makes anymore, a low-key effort that’s light on flash but big on heart, a record that’s comfortable with its own roots, made by an artist who’s more than happy to follow his whims and leave a few loose ends rather than tie everything together into a neat, consumer-friendly package.
As delightfully antiquated as this is, it’s little wonder that some folks just can’t seem to figure out what to do with it. When Nutini appeared in 2006, he was still a teenager; his soulful pop was polished and catchy enough to get him lumped in with the likes of James Blunt, and he seemed to almost accidentally fall into selling two million albums. Three years later, he seems rather remarkably determined to make music on his own terms– sales be damned– and so he’s teamed up with Ethan Johns, well-known for his production work for another young soul singer named Ray Lamontagne, and he’s made a record that, quite simply, leaves all his peers in the dust. Perversely, though, some members of the press seem to wish he’d go back to making music that’s a bit more shiny and polished, a bit more commercial and unadventurous– to act his age, so to speak.
Acting one’s age has never been a particularly celebrated virtue in rock and roll circles, though, and if we can have septuagenarians prancing around like they were still in their twenties, surely we can allow a twentysomething to make music that sounds like it belonged to his grandfather– especially when he’s as rooted as Nutini. The music on Sunny Side Up may skip from style to style from one song to the next, but it’s all deeply entrenched in the folk and pop traditions of America and Nutini’s own native Scotland.
It’s an after-hours album, all twilit and spooky, pensive and romantic. It begins with a party: Opener “10/10” is a swinging love song set to a sunny ska beat, with rock-steady support from Roots drummer ?uestlove. It ends with a gentle reflection: Nutini croons like Bing Crosby in some sparsely-populated lounge at 3 in the morning on “Keep Rolling.” In between, he plays Scottish folk that sounds like it was unearthed from somewhere deep in the hill country (“Tricks of the Trade”), swings with Tin Pan Alley abandon (“Pencil Full of Lead”), two-steps through a country skiffle (“Simple Things”), and even nods in the direction of Memphis soul (“Coming Up Easy”). He’s not afraid to let the music carry him where it will– notice how “High Hopes” begins as a cowboy campfire song before finding its calypso beat, or how “Chamber Music” shifts from bedroom folk into a sort of jig– but he also knows well enough to keep the music lean and direct and close to its roots; try all you want, you won’t find an ounce of fat anywhere on this record.
That he shows so little regard for sticking to a particular style shows that he’s still finding his own voice, but also that he’s fearless; mostly, though, it shows that he has too much integrity to keep falling back on the same polished pop tricks of his debut, and the music of his peers. He’s traded the polish for genuine warmth, easy sentiment for actual intimacy: This album is untouched by irony. It’s romantic and the best kind of sentimental, sincere without dipping into sappy, and the whole thing envelopes you in a kind of warm, comforting melancholy.
As a lyricist, he’s unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve; there’s zero self-consciousness and absolutely no ego here as he cheerfully croons the charmingly silly nonsense lyrics of “Pencil Full of Lead.” He finds peace and contentment and communicates it sincerely on “Simple Things”– how utterly unhip is it for a pop song to give such major kudos to the singer’s dad?– but for all his romanticism, he isn’t naive. “Worried Man” is a prayer that doesn’t try to sugarcoat the harshness of life, and “High Hopes” wrestles to find the ground between hopefulness and realism. There are other little wrinkles, as well, that make the album feel real: “Coming Up Easy” could be a break-up song, for example, or it could be a wistful send-off to the singer’s own drug habit. It’s all written in the simple, unjaded poetry of pop and folk music; only in this idiom could a song like “Candy” be at once so dripping with sex but also so pure and innocent.
It’s all very unassuming, of course, but also entirely wonderful– the kind of record that charms you slowly over time and grows to become cherished and beloved, a record that finds an odd sense of perfection even in its minor flaws. (Nutini’s thick Scottish brogue makes his Bob Marley imitation on “10/10” a little weird, but that’s the only one that springs to mind right now.) Cliched though this may be, Sunny Side Up is ruggedly real, an album without pretense, rooted in tradition and rich in both joy and sadness. And that’s what ultimately makes it work: It may be old-fashioned, but it is by no means living in the past. Rather, it’s the sound of a terrific young musician discovering the past and reshaping it in his own vision.