I love Lucio

Pub date June 26, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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"I was sad when he died and sad to have never been able to meet him and tell him how much he had done for me," Amedeo Pace of Blonde Redhead writes in the liner notes for Water’s reissue of Amore e Non Amore, a 1971 album by Lucio Battisti. Pace then closes his brief yet poignant tribute — one that describes growing up in a household unified by a love of Battisti’s music — with a simple but effective declaration: "Amore e Non Amore is one of the greatest albums."

The fact that one of Blonde Redhead’s twins acknowledges Battisti as a font of new and familiar ideas should intrigue English-speaking listeners who’ve never heard Battisti’s music. But there’s also an elliptical quality to Pace’s plaintive wish that he had met the man behind Amore, an album that shifts from propulsive beat rock to soundtrack-ready flamenco flourishes and sweeping string arrangements in its first two songs, setting the tone and rhythm for a richly seesawing display of vocal and instrumental tracks.

With Amore, Battisti established himself as an Italian corollary to Scott Walker, a singer with a brighter if just as seductively handsome tenor voice who, not content with mere stardom, was ready to chart the outer limits of popular music. Just as the late ’60s — the era of Scott through Scott 4 (all Fontana) — saw Walker move from the mainstream pleasures of Burt Bacharach to the ribald, poetic, and pun-laden chansons of Jacques Brel as well as his own imaginative landscapes, so Amore and 1972’s Umanamente Uomo: Il Sogno (also recently reissued by Water) saw Battisti use his position as a favorite voice of his nation to take its people to musical places they may not have expected to discover. In Battisti’s case, those were deeply emotional places; it was no accident that the album he’d completed before Amore was Emozioni (Ricordi), a 1970 collection that boasts a title track as gorgeous and reflective as the enigmatic, sunlit silhouette cover photo of the bushy-haired man behind its music.

As the years went on, Battisti, much like Walker, retired from public life, becoming even more of an enigma. He died in 1998, 14 years after the release of his final album, Hegel (Alex, 1994) — a title so blatantly philosophical, so nonpop, that the avant-leaning Walker of today, draped in references to Pier Paolo Pasolini, again comes to mind. It’s here that Pace’s sadness that he’d "never been able to meet" Battisti becomes something more than personal; many Italians wish they could have known the man whose recordings they found so moving on an elemental level.

"After E Già [BMG, 1982], Lucio disappeared from view," Stefano Isidoro Bianchi of the Italian magazine Blow Up wrote when I e-mailed him to ask about the Battisti enigma. "After the early ’70s, he didn’t appear on TV — the one exception was a German TV show in 1978 — and never gave interviews. And after 1982, he really became invisible: no interviews, no TV, no pictures. We knew he lived in London for some time, and then for the rest of his life in a county called Brianzia, in Lombardia (north of Italy). The further he vanished, the more he was loved because of his songs. He was a presence on the Italian music scene. We knew that when Lucio was back with another album, it was a strike. And it was."

In the wake of his heyday, Battisti truly struck, according to Bianchi, in 1974 with Anima Latina (BMG) — which, though it was unreleased in the US, he rates as highly as Amore — and with E Già and 1986’s Don Giovanni (BMG), which included lyrics by surrealist poet Pasquale Panella. But Water has chosen wisely in selecting Amore and Umanamente to rerelease. "These albums are unique in the way they combine string-heavy European crooner pop with prog rock grooves and psychedelic guitar," notes Michael Saltzman, who penned the liner notes for the label’s Umanamente reissue. When I ask Saltzman to name a favorite period in Battisti’s career, he chooses Amore and Umanamente as peak examples of the stylistic cross-pollination that was occurring on other continents — via Tropicália, perhaps most notably — during the late- and initial post-Beatles years. Indeed, they are "comunque bella," to quote the chorus of one of Umanamente‘s hymnlike highlights, only in the sense that Battisti adds dissonant elements to counterbalance the abundant beauty of his voice and compositions.

Perhaps at my suggestion, Bianchi isn’t averse to likening the deep artistic connection that Battisti had with his Amore and Umanamente lyricist, Mogol, to one that existed between a certain American troubadour and his wordsmith: "Mogol was the inner voice of Lucio like Larry Beckett was the inner voice of Tim Buckley," Bianchi observes. But in the end, he’s insistent — apologetically so — that "no one but the Italians can understand" the "magic" of Battisti in full bloom: "In the early ’70s, Battisti released his best albums, and the way he approached something we can call progressive was peculiarly Italian and peculiarly Battisti-like. If you know the other Italian progressive bands, you know that Battisti wasn’t part of the scene. He was a great musician because he changed the face of Italian pop music."

To which I say, "Pace, Pace," or "Pace, pace." The most musical of all languages might float through Battisti’s songs, but their space — shadowy, sacred, alternately melancholic and frenzied — is open to anyone who listens, Italian, American, Italian American, and otherwise.

After all, the glorious anthemic harmony at the close of Umanamente‘s "… E Penso a Te" speaks the universal language of pop, repeating variations of "la-la" until shivers shoot up the spine and tears form at the corners of one’s eyes.*

For an e-mail Q&A with Amedeo Pace about Lucio Battisti, see the Noise blog at www.sfbg.com/blogs/music.