It’s rare for a hidden track to have enough substance to hold the key to an album’s lyrical themes and aesthetic values, but that’s exactly the case on Salim Nourallah’s solo debut Polaroid and its closing song of the same title. This album captures a moment like a photograph, tying its narrator to his past just as it affects his present and his view of his future.
The album opens with one of its strongest tracks. “Everybody Wants to Be Loved” focuses on a young child, and Nourallah gradually reveals that a parent narrates this track. The parent tries to help the lonely child understand but realizes that even (or perhaps especially) the adult world sometimes has no because. At the end, parent and child both the face the fact that “it’s not enough”, setting up the themes that run through the rest of the album: the relationship between adulthood and childhood and the challenge of sorting through personal connections.
As Nourallah examines these topics, he maintains a singular sound even while varying tempo, mood, and expression. Polaroid holds together well as an album, primarily because of Nourallah’s skill as a producer. He’s made a headphone album out of songs that are essentially folk music. Moreover, the album’s intelligent sequencing improves upon the strong individual songs. “Everybody Wants to Be Loved” has a slow tempo, drawn out vocals, and a soft feel. With the next track, “1978”, Nourallah responds to his own mood by picking up the tempo and creating as much of a rocker as he has on this CD. Lyrically, he answers the concerns of the first track by expressing his desire to return to his own childhood, back when “no one died”. The oil crisis is on, but the 11-year-old of the time only wonders if his 8-year-old beloved will “date an older man”. The nostalgia and re-created naiveté nicely plays off the older musings of the first song.
Nourallah continues this technique throughout the album, alternating from past to present while varying moods and tempos. Frequently he looks back and considers how wonderful the past and his childhood were, but, in the present, he suggests that it was his problems early in life that led him to this point. He even goes beyond his birth to suggest that his own genes contain the seeds of his struggle. In “A Family Disease” he discusses an unnamed problem that gets passed along (either genetically or culturally) from parent to child. The disease sounds like depression, and Nourallah ends the song asking his son to “Come back in / Let me in”. The disease comes from within the very bonds that it then serves to weaken.
After the discussion of this disease, Nourallah explores the nature of loving those who hurt you. The mandolin and keys set a reflective tone for the song, as the narrator works through injuries committed to him and others. Finally he insists that he will not act as these others have. The “family disease” might continue, but he asserts that he is ending the cycle of pain. The down feeling of the song, though, complicates his declaration; he sounds more like he’s too weary rather than too good to do harm. The complexity of the song’s resolution adds to its emotional impact.
On “One Foot Stuck in the Past”, Nourallah explicitly states the position that he’s gradually been revealing throughout Polaroid. He can’t simultaneously move forward and focus on the past. Although Nourallah’s been reminiscing like the Kinks’ Ray Davies, he’s been doing so with a greater consciousness of nostalgia’s dangers. At this point, the album takes an emotional downturn that seems inescapable. The reminiscing “Model Brothers” sounds sad despite its upbeat rhythm, and even the love song “Christmas Eve” ends with a meditation on death. He keeps us hanging until the hidden track at the end, titled “Polaroid”. The power of the past is hidden in the picture, with its ability to comfort even as memory puts rocks under your mattress. It’s a distinctly personal vision, this guide that holds you in place. In the end, the picture is of many people, even if only one is revealed.