Learning a language doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a process, with familiar thoughts and sounds becoming new again in your head before clicking into place and unlocking all sorts of fresh possibilities. For the past six years, Paolo Nutini has been learning how to speak his own language.
Last Night In The Bittersweet is an album of reframed experiences and rewired iconography, where the lurid colours of a neon motel sign or a snatch of dialogue from a movie can mean as much as a heartfelt plea or wrenching goodbye. In its down-the-line drums, guitar drones and euphoric melodic releases, it lives in the moment when, your forehead pressed against a cold car window, the white lines of the central reservation seem to fold into the music fighting its way out of your headphones.
After touring 2014’s Caustic Love, his second UK #1 on the bounce and his biggest chart success to date in the US, Paolo retreated for a time and found, in the gap between his late 20s and early 30s, that he’d assembled a musical vocabulary that he hadn’t put into proper use in his own work to that point. The songs he began to write bled beyond the lines and seemed to say that his voice could exist in the same sort of settings that excited him as a listener: in motorik rock songs that spoke of Can or Neu!, in squalling mini-epics that verge on post-rock, or in self-contained, hook-driven cuts best described with heavy labels like Motown or Stiff or Sun.
Working from a stack of voice memos, chaotically-filed influences and bare-bones melodies, Paolo set about hammering the tunes into shape in sessions that would eventually span several years, taking him and his co-producers Dani Castelar and Gavin Fitzjohn from ICP studios in Brussels to Rockfield in Monmouthshire and Orange Grove, just outside Valencia. Last Night In The Bittersweet is home to big ideas that took some wrangling, and it has the hallmarks of a record that was agonised over: it doesn’t sound tossed off or easy. But, crucially, it also doesn’t feel fussy or inert.
Witness the Steve Nieve skronk of the organ on Petrified in Love, or the layers and layers of sound that ricochet off Lose It’s propulsive core—driven on by Paolo’s writing utensil of choice, a bass guitar—before it explodes into life with the three minute mark in sight, like Tina Turner taking Jaki Liebezeit’s seamless drumming as an invitation to get all the way out there.
That counts double in sequences such as Through The Echoes, perhaps the most straightforwardly beautiful and affecting song in his catalogue: there are flecks of Sam Cooke here, but it’s not some sort of calculated grab at the permanence of those sounds. These emotions and performances are bloody and alive. The heart, the feeling, that voice, are all his. “I love you, like a song,” he sings during the elegiac, slow-burn ballad Everywhere, and that’s the truth, as plain as he can say it.