Paolo Nutini, Last Night in the Bittersweet ★★★★☆
I would love to have seen the expressions on the faces of record-company executives when the Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini delivered his long-awaited new album. Eight years in the making, its opening track, Afterneath, contains a sample of Quentin Tarantino dialogue from the director’s 1993 thriller True Romance, while the Scottish soul-man wails like a bereft creature in a primeval forest over some prog-rock jazz noodling, and recites a spoken-word lyric of beatnik poetry: “Carnage in good night despair / A deep dive into an open mind / On the lost highway of the caustic night…” After that, things only get stranger.
Last Night in the Bittersweet is Nutini’s fourth offering since he broke through as a pin-up purveyor of contemporary blue-eyed soul with These Streets in 2006. A 16-track double, clocking in at 72 minutes and densely packed with fiercely chugging guitars, stark bass and atmospheric analogue synths, its more unexpected influences include Krautrock, prog rock, folk rock and a taut vein of post-punk pop-rock, all gilded with the most fluid, raw and emotional soul voice Britain has produced since Rod Stewart first squeezed into a pair of tight trousers.
Nutini can sing; of that, there has never been any question. He has a raw tone that hints at Otis Redding with the delicate flow of Al Green, filtered through a thick accent that conjures peculiar visions of Southern soul giants lamenting around Highland campfires. With Italian handsomeness and troubadour scruffiness added to that voice, Nutini established a misleading reputation as a kind of Hibernian James Morrison, or a more soulful James Blunt.
But as his loyal fanbase appreciates, there’s much more to Nutini’s oeuvre. His fantastic second album, 2009’s Sunny Side Up, saw him channelling Cotton Club jazz and Band-style Americana, while 2014’s Caustic Love dived into epic rock and funk. Both reached Number One in the UK, and Nutini has clocked up over 8 million global album sales, 1.5 billion streams and two Ivor Novello awards (the last of these voted for by fellow musicians). He writes his own songs (sometimes in collaboration), plays multiple instruments, and has produced this latest set himself, with two band members. He is a genuine talent.
Personally, I find it heartening that his comeback is so wildly eccentric, though I wonder what the wider world will make of it. The slow-building Shine a Light sounds like Primal Scream covering New York electro-punks Suicide; Abigail is what you might get if Johnny Cash put on a kilt and raised his voice two octaves. Acid Eyes is a slow-burning post-punk mantra, while the snappy Petrified Love is straight out of a 1978 New Wave dream: think The Cars meeting Martha and the Muffins at the drive-in. There’s a lot to get your ears around.
Only a couple of heartfelt acoustic ballads of lost love tap into what mainstream audiences might expect from Nutini. Last Night in the Bittersweet reminds me of the kind of wilfully oddball albums that singer-songwriters sometimes knocked out in the 1970s, like Tim Buckley getting into sex funk on Greetings From LA or Harry Nilsson rocking out with John Lennon on Pussy Cats. Fortunately, Nutini has a voice that could transform any song, riding melodies with lazy restraint until suddenly unleashing notes that would have any throat specialist reaching for their speculum in alarm. On Last Night in the Bittersweet, he sounds like he’s having the time of his life. Neil McCormick
Imagine Dragons, Mercury – Act 2 ★★☆☆☆
Helped by global megahit Radioactive, Imagine Dragons are one of the biggest bands in the world. A pop-rock group for the streaming generation, the Las Vegas four-piece blur genres to create music for a variety of Spotify playlists. It sounds cynical but can 53 million monthly listeners be wrong?
2021’s Mercury – Act 1 continued that trend, with miserable lyrics sung over upbeat synths as the band made passing nods to rock, pop and indie. Created over lockdown, the album spoke of loneliness and despair with a sweeping relatability designed to resonate with as many people as possible. Sticking to the mantra that more is more, Imagine Dragons have now followed it up with Mercury – Act 2, an 18-track album that swaps personality for polish.
Lead single Bones is a surprisingly menacing slice of alt-pop that flirts with hip-hop. “Is this entertaining?” sings vocalist Dan Reynolds with a confident grin before the brilliant bubbly romance of Symphony and the haunting flamboyance of Sharks. Three tracks in and the answer is a resounding yes. Then there’s the stripped back I Don’t Like Myself that allows Reynolds honest-to-a-fault lyrics a chance to shine.
However, there’s at least eight other downtempo songs on Mercury – Act 2 that all trudge towards the same big, emotional finale that’s less impactful every time and quickly sucks the joy from the record.
The electro-pop bounce of Blur, the thundering I’m Happy and the swaying Peace Of Mind are the sort of radio-friendly anthems we’ve come to expect from Imagine Dragons, but they’re so sleek, there’s nothing to grab onto. And that’s really where Mercury – Act 2 falls apart. In a bid to appeal to everyone, the band have removed anything that would make them stand out. There’s no doubt you’ll hear Imagine Dragons’ music everywhere over the next few months, but you’ll be hard pushed to remember it. Ali Shutler
Nick Cave, Seven Psalms ★★★★☆
Over lockdown Nick Cave wrote a psalm a day for a week, each one dealing with issues such as love, faith, grief and rage. On Seven Psalms, he narrates these spoken-word passages over minimalist backing tracks composed with his long-term collaborator Warren Ellis. Seven Psalms is less an album and more – in Cave’s own words – a “veiled, contemplative offering” of “small, sacred songs”. The longest of these tracks lasts for just over two minutes. Even with a second side comprising a 12-minute instrumental version of all the songs put together, Seven Psalms lasts for just 25 minutes.
But these are powerful nuggets. Whether he’s addressing God directly or meditating on the nature of religion in more abstract terms (you never quite know), Cave’s words are potent and evocative. The spectral synth and ghostly chime of a church bell on I Have Trembled My Way Deep are overlaid with the 64-year-old’s trademark lyricism. “Unpetal me and burst me open wide/ And lay your shining head upon my breast,” he says.
His voice is careworn but warm throughout; he may be a “mist-maker moving through the throng” who creates “a cloud of carnage everywhere I roam”, but Cave’s close, frayed delivery is riveting. There’s sadness here too. On Such Things Should Never Happen, he speaks of a baby sparrow falling from its nest. “Such things should never happen but they do/ Beside a little box, a mother cries,” he says, and it’s impossible not think of Cave’s own grief (unimaginable tragedies have seen him lose two sons in recent years). Cave addresses social unrest too – on Splendour, Glorious Splendour he talks about gas cannisters spinning and hissing through the street.
Ellis’s music is elegiac throughout. It throbs and swells with subtle majesty. The aforementioned Splendour, Glorious Splendour contains an inconspicuous yet beguiling piano riff that brings to mind the blink-and-you-miss-it piano part on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. The little details here are gorgeous.
But this is a little album. It’s almost impossible to be a grazing Nick Cave fan (you’re either sucked in to his restless orbit or you’re not), and anyone thinking of dipping a toe in the water should probably not start here. (I’d Try The Boatman’s Call, Let Love In or Push The Sky Away as entry points). But, for the Cave converts, Seven Psalms is a deeply bracing listen. James Hall