Like the best Barbera wine from his hometown of Asti, Paolo Conte’s musicianship improves over time. At 72 the gravelly voiced Italian singer-songwriter has mastered his craft to the point where the unexpected occurs routinely. Often compared to such singer-poets as Jacques Brel, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen, Conte is rapidly building a following beyond Italy and France, where he is considered a “national treasure.” Since his 1975 debut album, Conte, a former lawyer, has been distilling introspective, jazzy musings on love, desire, and restlessness. Whether alone with his piano or backed up by a full orchestra, Conte is always singing-talking directly to you.
Conte’s new album, Psiche, with songs in English and French as well as his native Italian, comes five long years after his previous release, the memorable Elegia. From the start, it feels as if new characters, places, memories, and emotions have been conjured up to inhabit his familiar world. Again, we are in a land suspended between razor-sharp detail and dreamlike amnesia, where emotions are the guide and compass.
The disc’s title track is a jazzy adagio, its pathos floating between the piano and the synthesizer; it draws the listener in with a 107-second overture that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The song contains only three lines of text, like an opening haiku. Confronted with the centuries-old opposition Psyche/Eros, Conte is clearly partial to the former: “The Goddess of the soul is of the Earth,” he muses, “and above all has more stories to tell.” Stories and images are at the core of Conte’s interests. The new songs seem intended for contemplation, like standing in front of a beautiful painting. We might think of them as pictorial songs.
“Il Quadrato e il Cerchio,” driven by guitar and more synthesizer, is colored by the singer’s cryptic autobiographical humor, while “Intimità” is a classic Conte love song, with apparent banalities shining like profound aphorisms. “Big Bill” is the tale of a man on the run from some unspoken secret: a short, epic narrative, allusive and mysterious, with an overall cinematic effect. “L’Amore Che” brings another classic Conte love song in quartet arrangement. For his fans it will be like rummaging through a drawer full of memories. “Silver Fox” (in heavily accented English) evokes Broadway musicals with over-the-top choruses. “Bella di Giorno” appropriates the rhythms of an idiosyncratic waltz; voice and sax blend for the perfect seduction, with strings and accordion in the background. “Velocità Silenziosa” uses cycling as a metaphor for heroics; the tune was originally written as a jingle for the Giro d’Italia. “Ludmilla” conjures up a Felliniesque circus and Eastern European atmosphere—light and darkness alternate in a “story of love, bandits, and traitors.” “Leggenda e Popolo,” in a lyrical and seductive mood, is built by intertwining melodies and plays on words.
The playful, ironically nostalgic “Danza della Vanità” is simply a vaudeville piece, Paolo Conte–style. “Coup de Théâtre” (sung in French), where male and female voices converse above over-arranged synthesized strings, veers toward cheesiness. “Così o Non Così,” through a blend of guitar, synthesizer, and brass, mixes the feel of a popular Italian tune with the atmosphere of a noisy barroom. “Berlino” may be the perfect music for a car ride on a rainy day: “It’s raining in Berlin, a Spanish rain, on new shoes.” It is a melancholy soundtrack characterized by strong visual storytelling. A languid ending for this CD that invites further listening.
With Paolo Conte, one senses singular talent without being able to pinpoint it. Like Kafka’s Josephine, the singing mouse, the nature of his talent eludes classification. While Conte does not have much of a singing voice, he has an uncanny ability to extract musicality from figures of speech, dramatic pauses, or humming, or from simply placing a spoken word on the right chord. His piano-playing sounds like the natural extension of his voice, thought-processes, and breathing. His lyrics have the poetic quality of a Willy Ronis photograph: By focusing on minute occurrences, they capture the mystery and joy of everyday experience. Conte’s most famous song, “Gelato al limon,” is about lemon ice cream.
For those who wonder how the lives of millions of non-English-speaking fans have been touched by Bob Dylan, it will be similarly difficult to understand Paolo Conte’s success outside of Italy. Yet Conte, like Dylan, creates an instant bond with his audience that is only partly language-dependent. When in 1998 Nonesuch released the collection The Best of Paolo Conte in the United States it was voted record of the year by the New Yorker and Rolling Stone, and followed by a hugely successful U.S. tour. At 72, Conte is not content to accumulate awards. As Psiche attests, he is still searching, exploring, willing to put his reputation on the line. As his signature moustache is graying, accentuating his physical resemblance to the beloved French singer George Brassens, one can easily imagine the solitary Paolo Conte, on the top of his hill in the small town of Scurzolengo in Piedmont, where he is said to spend hours listening to the winds howl through the olive trees.
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.