“Rusty music. Blackish, hot painted with soot.” Should you ever hear a noise that fits the description, please tell Paolo. Almost a decade since his last album, he’s beginning to resemble one of those poor souls who spend their days approaching strangers in cafes with tatty pictures of missing relatives.
At 68, one suspects it’s too late for him to change. And, in any case, what’s to encourage him? Conte’s careworn requiems to an increasingly unrecognisable world have accorded him a measure of stardom across Europe. In Britain, we remember him as the guy who sang “Chips, chips” on a car advert, over a pacey jazz backdrop. Conte, by and large, sticks to Italian, but it’s a rule he relaxes when an English phrase permits lyrical flight of fancy. Hence Sandwich Man, on which the singer likens a lover’s vulnerability to a sandwich board: “The question is bright red and the answer is blue.”
So, invariably, is the music. Chissa [Who Knows] depicts an artist barely able to look up from his piano for fear of the approaching next world. On Il Regno Del Tango [The Kingdom Of Tango], Conte acts as a one-man Greek chorus to the tragedy of his protagonist – a bandoneon player reduced to begging outside the theatre where he once used to play, subjected to daily torrents of abuse from the new manageress: “Like… a goat/Kicking, ugly, bad-tempered…” Only at the end does the disinterested protagonist declare his loyalties: “Bandoneon, old lion/Bite her.”
If these songs – all violins, accordions, piano – represent Conte at his most Italian, the questing, restless quality of what remains throws open further flung similarities. The recurrent Tom Waits comparisons are understandable, though Marianne Faithfull’s 20th Century Blues is closer. Ultimately, Conte’s gravelly slur owes far more to Louis Armstrong; his arrangements tap a lifelong trust in Sonny Rollins and the yearning tenor sax of Coleman Hawkins – renegade noises accessed via his parents’ wireless dial over half a century previously.
Hence Elegia’s most intoxicating moment. Over a stoned Dixie shuffle, Frisco sees Conte placing San Francisco among the great lost civilizations of antiquity, perpetually half a beat behind his own band. In the immediate aftermath of Mussolini’s Italy, what would such wild, exotic sounds have done to a young boy? Therein lies the melancholic allure of Paolo Conte. That other incorrigible nostalgic Van Morrison may claim to have been raised by jazz; but Conte is a man orphaned by it, mired in the denial of its passing. And so he’ll keep searching. Rusty music. Blackish, hot painted with soot. Now where could you find something that sounded like that? If only he could hear what we hear.