Does the world need another fey singer-songwriter littering the landscape with their internal emotional viscera? Do we need more applicants to a club that already has Will Oldham, Elliott Smith (ok, had), Micah Hinson, Andrew Bird, Damien Jurado, M. Ward, just to name a few? Do we really need an additional layer of players barking to get into the A group? Can’t the labels just be happy with the alarmingly talented group already working instead of foisting more and more upon our already overburdened ears? For me, the answer to the first three questions is yes, the answer to the last is no. We need a fresh crop of micro singer-songwriters chasing the tails of the macro. We need as many Faris Nourallahs, Unbunnys, Salim Nourallahs, Chad VanGaalens, Christian Keifers, et al, as possible. We need their schizophrenic experimentation and their genre-hopping approach to integrating influences. But mostly we need them on small labels laboring away with minimal reward but for the love of what they do, because in today’s overcrowded musical universe (and particularly the increasingly nebulous place we call “indie-rock”) this is the incubator for the next great things. It’s like a musical Darwinism: sign as many as you can and see what survives. The survivors should be sturdy, sure-footed players full of songs that integrate and improve on what’s gone before. So let’s have as many as we can. Let’s have some that suck and some that are just okay and a couple that absolutely deserve a larger audience. To that last group I’d like to add Faris Nourallah.
Ostensibly, King of Sweden is supposed to tell the story of a young man disillusioned with life. It’s a chronicle of teenage angst and frustration. While I’d agree that there are songs on King Of Sweden that certainly carry that narrative, I’d also argue that the themes here are more adult and more universal; or as adult and universal as you can get within the context of a pop song. King Of Sweden is all about the pop song. The songs here are simple, melodic constructions of the best kind. This is pop music in the vein of Elvis Costello or Bryan Ferry. It’s music that distills emotion into three chords and a catchy chorus yet convinces you that it’s real.
The challenge with a record like King Of Sweden lies in its stylistic changes. King Of Sweden is not a story being told through a series of songs unified in tone and style. Nourallah is all over the map here. At one point he’s playing ‘80s-era synth pop on “I’m Falling”, on “I Run Faster Than You Can” he’s trying his hand at some Ben Folds piano pop, while on “Obfuscation” he’s trying on his Violent Femmes hat. He does each impression well and it’s obvious that he’s respectful of his influences, but he’s at his best when he’s forging his own sound. On “Guiding Light”, Nourallah’s gentle voice plays against a clattering percussion track that sounds like thin glass bottles tapped with chopsticks, and short horn bursts split the song down the middle allowing Nourallah’s voice to carefully hold the pieces together by echoing the horns with a “bop-ba-ba, bop-ba-ba” chorus. It’s as good a piece of pop songwriting as you’re likely to hear this year.
There isn’t a song on King Of Sweden that could be called bad. Instead, there are high points and low points with even the low points being very solid. Most importantly, I, in my semi-rockist snobbery, hear the potential of Faris Nourallah to be the kind of songwriter worth listening to closely.