Paolo Conte

Questa Sporca Vita

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After a decade of working as a professional songwriter for popular Italian artists such as Adriano Celentano, Patty Pravo, and Caterina Caselli, Paolo Conte released his eponymous debut album at age 37. Far from being merely an odd detail, age perfectly explains some of the best characteristics of his music, and of the persona Conte would build up throughout his discography. Indeed, part of the charm of this superb collection of songs (and of Conte's music) is the obstinate refusal to go with the times. Instead of conforming to the standard singer/songwriter mold of the 1970s, that of engaged or confessional subject matter set predominantly to acoustic guitar and string embellishments, Conte preferred the dingy ballroom entertainer persona, all tinkling piano, jazz-flavored ballads, and obsolete dance numbers. Conte presents himself as a sort of once-aspiring playboy, long fallen into hard times or obscurity, who tries to keep up the act, even if the extent of his failure is all too obvious to himself. Like Tom Waits and Serge Gainsbourg, two artists with whom Conte is often associated, his music is a portrait of decadence. Yet, unlike Waits or Gainsbourg, Conte has little interest in experimentation or provocation. Most importantly, his singular brand of misanthropy is humorous and gentle, melancholic rather than mean. Conte's main topic is the dullness and pettiness of bourgeois life and the associated obligatory pleasures that are not really much fun: the customary summer holiday at the usual second-rate sea spots or a tourist trip to Venice just to get even with a relative who would not shut up boasting about her own trip to Rome, as well as the seemingly unavoidable infidelity, divorce, and middle-age bitterness. In this, his first album, Conte's voice is thin, craggy, and surprisingly high, very different from the dark bass tones that would become his trademark in later albums (think post-'80s Leonard Cohen). Indisputably, he was already a consummate professional songwriter with a clear vision of his own music, an amalgam of jazz, polka, foxtrot, Charleston, café concert, and music hall, as performed very late by a drunk pianist who keeps on playing to a totally uninterested barroom audience made up of old prostitutes and tired men in their fifties. To top it all, he clearly had been saving these tunes for a while, for the material is uniformly superb. From the classics "Onda Su Onda" and "Una Giornata al Mare" to the less well-known "Tua Cugina Prima," "Lo Scapolo," and "Wanda," every single one of these 11 tracks is fantastic, making Paolo Conte's debut album one of the very best he would ever make.

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