he biggest flaw in Salim Nourallah's music is that it might take a few listens to hook you. If you've got it on as background music, you might not jump at the gorgeous sounds, and you'll certainly miss the restrained but emotional lyrics. That fact gives me two simultaneous and conflicted feelings: I want everyone in the world to know about this music, and I want to keep it all for myself.
I imagine Beautiful Noise as the perfect 17-year-old boy album. You need the time and space to be alone with your headphones, to be staring up at your ceiling in the dim light and letting Nourallah's moods sink in. You need the headphones to get to the pure craft involved in the self-production. Most important, you have to be open enough in spirit to feel "The Beautiful Noise" or acknowledge with sadness that "The World Is Full of People Who Want to Hurt You" without feeling like you've been there before.
But don't think for a minute that this album works only for teenagers. Nourallah works with subtle shifts, re-directions, and thematic developments that should keep even a rabid close listener occupied for a little while. On his previous album, Polaroid, he developed questions about family relationships and the connections between the past and the present. Now Nourallah turns more forward-looking, whether worrying about what life could bring to his child on "The World Is Full of People" or anticipating the end of his own flashed-through existence on any of several tracks.
Much of the thinking ahead involves flashing back; as before, Nourallah uses memory to explore the present moment. "Montreal"'s investigation of past love and its provision of purpose turns into "The Apartment," with its shuddering confession of loss. "First Love" reveals memories that run through the narrator's head as he stands graveside, and that moment of grief and recollection pulls down our guard for later meditations on death. Finally, on "Life in a Split Second" Nourallah tries to break down the binaries of joy and sadness, hope and despair, life and death while maintaining enough optimism to get by. As the album approaches its close, you can't tell if Nourallah's offering comfort or consoling himself when he sings, "It's only as good as we made."
Nourallah's shown as much care in assembling his sounds as he has his lyrics. He's as much a producer as a songwriter at heart, and he puts his albums together with as much pop-craft as anyone around. From McCartneyism to chamber-pop to classic folkery, Nourallah puts everything in its right place. "The World Is Full of People" relies on basic but effective stereo splits, with the guitar hook trading channels and the tambourine residing only on the left. The acoustic guitar, rather than the drums, provides the rhythmic fills. Nothing sounds as if it's been left to chance, yet the song feels like spontaneous expression.
Which brings us back to Nourallah's problem. It's so good, but it sounds so easy that you might not notice it. He doesn't grab your attention with big hooks or catchy riffs or soaring/dramatic/loud choruses; he just writes spot-on pop and plays it perfectly. The closest he's come to a possible radio hit was 2004's "1978." Without a major behind him, he doesn't have the push to get on the airwaves, but he's better not heard over car speakers or in the break room. When he whispers, "Love is for heroes," you'll laugh because it sounds silly, but if you've been listening to him, you'll understand the courage that takes in his world, and you'll withstand the snickers of anyone who doesn't get it. If you recognize that he's explaining that to his young child, you'll be sympathetic; if you get that he means it for you, you'll be improved.
So, no, I don't want to hear it on the radio, I don't want to hear it on every other car to stop at the red light, (Sorry, Salim Nourallah—I wish you fame and fortune and, at the same time, I wish my music private.) but I do want to hear it, on my terms, and on my own.