The idea that tragedy makes for great songwriting is so cliché that it is embarrassing to write. Great writers write great songs, and Salim Nourallah is a songwriter to be contended with. He is omnipresent in Dallas, producing people like the Old 97’s and playing in Rhett Miller’s other band, the Instigators. In fact, his unofficial job as musical ambassador of Dallas is almost enough to make you forget that the guy is a writer whose talent parallels that of other “giants in the making” like Jeff Tweedy and Jim James.
Nourallah’s latest release, Constellation is the first full length release since the death of friend Carter Albrecht. That loss is reflected in the beautiful “Blink of an Eye”. Carter has his place and moment. After that, the record is totally in Nourallah’s hands, and that is where it belongs. Where his last album, Snowing in my Heart, had an experimental feel to it, Constellations has the feel of a studio master. Nourallah has turned a corner as a songwriter. His compass is now divided evenly between observations of life external and his own emotional existence. Lyrically seeking universality with these images is what makes Constellations great.
There is less tinkering and more thinking here. “Western Hills”, for example, is framed by a simple guitar and refrain. Lyrically, it is very personal, but the message is one of youth and transparency. The same can be said about “Pictures Collected”. Here Nourallah takes a universal concept, the notion of remembrance, and attaches it to a philosophical question left unanswered. “Stranger in My Own Skin” takes the personal to another level as he writes about putting pain to song so strangers could “get the worlds all wrong”. On both tracks the production is so sublime that it is irresistible. While his vocal has always lent itself to mournful and almost emo, Nourallah overpowers with simplicity and repetition where it’s called for. “Be Here Now” ads to the already crowded collection of infectious Salim Nourallah love songs, while “St Georges” is Nourallah when his soul is overtaken by Randy Newman. That surely can’t be a bad sign.
As mentioned, “Blink of an Eye” brings focus to Dallas music’s tragic loss in the death of Albrecht, but the rest of Constellations is life after that tragedy. It is about waking up the day after a disaster and remembering that you still have to take the kids to school. It is the record Nourallah has long meant to make, and an unqualified success.
Dallas may be the most underappreciated musical scene in America. With Sorta, the Slack, the King Bucks, and Nourallah all easy to find on a weekend night, you would think more would take notice. However, the real treasures of Dallas are its songwriters. Albrecht, Rhett Miller, Danny Balis, Chris Holt, and a host of others are carrying the mantle in near obscurity. Salim Nourallah may well be its best kept secret. Far more well known in Europe, he has fallen in the crevice that exists between bands like Fleet Foxes and acts like Sufjan Stevens. But what he has to offer is far more satisfying than either.