By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It's hard to believe him at first. Or maybe it's that you just don't want to believe him.
So, reflexively, when Salim Nourallah offhandedly mentions that his newest record, Constellation, is also likely his last, your first inclination is to smile it off.
It just has to be a joke. Or, at the very least, a statement Nourallah hasn't truly, completely mulled over.
Only Nourallah has thought about his decision. And he stands by it too, even while acknowledging that it might not be what others expect of him.
"I wasn't kidding," he says, smiling now. He explains: "I've always been skeptical of the aging process as it's tied to quality. When artists get older, the quality goes down."
He speaks ever so matter-of-factly. At 40 years old, Nourallah has achieved the self-awareness that his retrospective music (both in style and theme) has boasted for years now.
"The trick is to get better as you get older. And considering my mistrust of aging and art, [this record] ended up being a really great thing. I didn't want to show up with stuff that I thought was just OK. This is my best stuff. At this point, I wouldn't even think about trying to top it."
This sense of accomplishment and fulfillment is a new one for Nourallah. In the past, his mind has always focused on what's next. As one record would inch toward completion—be it with his first Denton band, The Moon Festival; with his next project, a collaboration with his brother Faris called, simply enough, The Nourallah Brothers; or with any of the last four solo records he's released since—his mind would already be focused on the next release.
Now, after nearly 20 years, such thinking has been pushed aside.
"I don't have the feeling to make another record right now," says Nourallah, who no longer harbors the hope that the next record is The One, the disc that holds The Big Break within it. The singer-songwriter has given up that dream now. Instead, he shrugs. "I've said everything I want to say."
But this is not a sad story, as so many of Nourallah's songs have tended to be.
With Constellation, if it is indeed his last record, Nourallah has ended his recording career on the highest of notes. It is, quite simply, his finest release, more open and honest than any other of his recorded outputs. There is no character behind which Nourallah is hiding. When, on the song "The Wrong Road," he sings, "Do you ever get the feeling your life could have been something more appealing than what it became? Do you go back to the moment those choices were made that affected every moment you spent from that day?" it's clear that he's speaking with stark honesty about his own life's decisions. And though this, too, appears a somber song, unlike many Nourallah tracks this one actually has uplifting underpinnings. By its end, much like in real life, Nourallah has come to accept—nay, revel—in the fact that he has taken the wrong road.
With few exceptions, most notably the song "In the Blink of an Eye," which Nourallah penned about his fallen friend, musician Carter Albrecht, much of Constellation's material can be described this way. As opposed to happy melodies that cover up more heartbreaking themes, Nourallah's final album is filled with heartbreaking melodies that, beneath their surface, show a man quite content with what life has handed him.
"I was on a walk the other day with my child," he says, "and I was just like, 'How cool is this?'" He references another track on Constellation, "Be Here Now," in which Nourallah admits having difficulty appreciating the moment, admits to always having wanted more—of his career, of his music and of its appreciation by others. "I wanted [those things] before I knew any better," he says. "But why? To blow my ego up? How many fans can you have tell you how great you are? What does it matter?"
In the end, Nourallah has learned that it doesn't matter all too much. The joy, rather, comes in the journey and process, which is another lesson Nourallah learned while recording Constellation, which, for the first time in his solo career, Nourallah did not record on his own. Instead, he trusted his friend, producer Billy Harvey, to take the reins.
"To me, it was a fun test," Nourallah says. "I wanted to see how much I could not mess with something. Billy was the producer. I never once usurped him."
Because only Nourallah and Harvey appear on much of the disc (the lone exception being the track "Saint Georges," which features Bob Schneider on guitar and upright bassist Bruce Hughes), it still sounds like a Nourallah disc. But there are also differences: It's a sparer recording than most of Nourallah's other albums, takes more melodic risks (on opener "Endless Dream Days," Nourallah showcases perhaps his highest register to date) and mostly features live in-studio recordings. It was also a far different process from the one Nourallah has come to employ in both his own recordings and in those he's done with other artists as a producer—namely in the fact that the songs began without any drum sounds, or even click tracks. And already, subjecting himself to another's methods has paid off: Earlier this year, as Nourallah recorded Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller's upcoming fourth solo release at his own Pleasantry Lane Studios near Lower Greenville, he employed many of the elements Harvey taught him.