Leave it to the Italians to produce some of the kitschiest yet, dare I say it, classiest pop music ever made. In my opinion, music in general peaked in the era of new wave, whose Anglophone faces such as Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads were brilliant, but overshadowed by an Italian named Franco Battiato.
Battiato’s 1981 album La Voce del Padrone was a return to pop for the artist who had been on an experimental streak for nearly a decade. Thankfully, it was a return to his strengths, including an innate genius when it comes to creating hooks and an infectious playfulness similar to that of the aforementioned Costello and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. It departs from much of the popular music of the previous decades in Italy, which (although a guilty pleasure of mine) exhausted all the frontiers of crooners singing over overtly melodramatic orchestral accompaniments. La Voce del Padrone is not the familiar collection of sappy love songs, but one filled with a healthy dose of equal parts irony and whimsy.
“Bandiera Bianca” (“White Flag”), the album’s most popular track, is a dizzying mix of references and a healthy dose of cynicism. He starts off by referencing Bob Dylan before transitioning to old Italian poetry and even German philosopher Theodor Adorno. Battiato’s voice is nowhere near conventionally pleasing. It lacks both technical quality and the rough edge and expressiveness of most of the genre’s singers. Instead, it is rather wavery and nasal, yet it somehow works with its earnestness and self-assuredness.
Battiato’s unconventional voice is a perfect accompaniment to the synth-heavy, but simple instrumentation. However, tracks like “Gli Uccelli” also feature gorgeous orchestral backings. Battiato often double tracks his own vocals, which offsets his limitations rather well.
Other standout tracks include “Centro di Gravità Permanente” and “Cuccurucucù.” The latter is inspired by a Mexican standard that has been covered by artists for decades including Joan Baez and Caetano Veloso. He uses the refrain, but fills his verses with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones references from “With a little help by my friends” to “Ruby Tuesday.” Hell, it even takes from the Iliad.
La Voce Del Padrone could be every poptimist’s first and last piece of evidence to convince the naysayers that pop can be as innovative and unique as any form of music out there. Running at just over half an hour, it is an easy, impeccably produced and ridiculously fun listen.