Faris Nourallah hides a complex worldview in direct pop songs. Smile as you resolve those philosophical dilemmas.
In the album's brief liner notes, the people at Green Ufos explain that they wanted to put together a collection that reflected Faris Nourallah's "more accessible and brighter side". In sounds like an odd project to attempt -- part of Nourallah's appeal is his mixture of gloomy feelings within his pop presentation. Ultimately it works, largely because the disc doesn't stick to its plan, and it manages to present Nourallah as a complex songwriter in a way that's more naturally engaging than his other recordings.
I picture Nourallah as always being a bit sedated, perhaps on a medical narcotic. It's not as if he seems he's suffering from a depression, but more as if he's feeling too languorous from the Texas heat. Considering this mood and his self-presentation gives the indication of a hermit, Nourallah carefully avoids any cry for self-pity. His lyrics come more from a worldview than any emotional need, which allows for subtle explorations of tone and prevents the personal from becoming indulgent, even as it remains affective.
On "Fantastic!" Nourallah even manages to turn bitter sarcasm into an upbeat pop song that's even a bit humorous (as far as it goes, anyhow). "Fantastic! / God made me with a body like a matchstick / Fantastic! / I gotta wear these big old glasses made of plastic" could be a whiny complaint, but it comes across more as exasperation, with the realization that this is what life has wrought, but oh, well. "Sick on the Escalator" swings far to the dangerous side of these feelings, where humiliation is matched against helplessness and the unnamed cause of public vomiting. Where many of Nourallah's tracks simply see life as a nuisance, this one pins it as nauseating force.
Nourallah doesn't stay in this mood, fortunately (it leads to good art, but only so much of it in a row is doable). "She'd Walk a Mile" (performed as the Nourallah Brothers with actual sibling Salim) provides a gorgeous meditation on puppy love, with lyrics Ray Davies would be proud of: "Her sister thinks he's an angelic dream a movie star / Her brother thinks he's too scrubbed and clean, but he likes his car". In the middle of an album that continually flattens emotional turmoil, this track hits with a special beauty, where happiness goes off leash without becoming saccharine.
Most of the album rides along on a guitar pop feel, continuing in the Beatles through Elliott Smith line. "I'm Falling" is performed on spacey synths that have more to do with the Cure than with anything else in Nourallah's catalog. An odd choice, but appropriate for the lyrics, which include the repeated title phrase and the opening "Floating with weightless grace", suggesting a painless, meaningless drift. You could make out or cry to this track.
"I'm Falling" and "Sick on the Escalator" comment on the lack of signs to guide us, but Nourallah admits his own desire to avoid the laid-out route. On "Let's Get Married", he suggests the opposite; hoping to avoid parenthood and the traditional life, he asks his lover several times if they have to play by the rules and determines that authority comes from an internal source. "Start a Revolution" shows that force starting its kinetic energy, but the Nourallah undercuts this effort by subtly acknowledging that the revolution won't get off the ground. This tension runs through the collection. Society's strictures limit freedom and joy, but the sensation of floating or missing the signs leads to a disconcerting sense of displacement. Fantastic!
Sedate as he can be, Nourallah doesn't settle. "A Day to Remember" recognizes that joy from a brief moment can be drawn upon over a long time:
Everybody needs a day they can remember,
The sun is in the sky and you are mine.
Everybody needs a way they can remember,
And ours is in this song so hold on.
Likewise, in "Once in a Lifetime", he sings of the importance of those singular moments of sublime pleasure: "Once in a lifetime / We might love like this... We might feel bliss like this". In Nourallah's worldview, much of life needs to be taken from a hammock, and not straight on, but not all his hopeless, as long as we're open to those pure moments.
On the surface, Nourallah's music can sound like standard guitar pop (assuming you miss the Latin influence on "Will We Ever Know Why?" or the atmospherics of some of the disc's later songs), but it's more subtle and affecting than most. Near the Sun doesn't stun, but it sustains a meditation on life that varies mood without losing consistency, which isn't bad for a compilation of 20 pop songs.