For most of his solo career, songwriter Salim Nourallah crafted understated, often meditative pop songs reliant on smart lyrics and a strong melodic sensibility. With 2012’s Hit Parade, something changed, and Nourallah appeared newly assertive. His seemed to move away from Kinks-inspired nostalgia and toward bolder rock and power pop, without sacrificing acumen or sense of humor. After that definitive record, Nourallah spent three years producing other artists’ records, as well as writing, recording and Kickstarting his way to Skeleton Closet. In that time, none of the fervor of Hit Parade dissipated, and Nourallah continues undaunted on his new trajectory.
“The Bullies Are Back” gives the clearest impression of Nourallah’s current approach. While he’s taken on bullies before, never has he sounded so menacing. The song—recorded with just the trio of Nourallah, guitarist Nick Earl and drummer John Dufilho (of the Deathray Davies)—creates a formidable threat of violence, even while undermining the significance of physical dominance. Nourallah sings, “We’re gonna win ‘cause they can’t stand the truth” and “They’re cowards at heart,” but he sounds like someone reaching for a switchblade just in case.
The sound on “The Bullies” is thick, but the song’s limited personnel makes it a novelty on the recording. More typical is opener “Dead Man’s Stare.” Although the track’s already a live staple with Salim backed only by a cassette on a boombox, here it’s recorded densely with the full band, including a different guitarist for the left and right tracks. As a producer, Nourallah found plenty to do here; it’s simultaneously stage music and headphone music, full and complex without becoming busy. More important than the sonic challenges and the appearance of a trash can lid may be the fact that it’s just really catchy.
But catchiness has never been a problem for Nourallah, and over his last two albums, he’s expanded the styles for which he can write earworms. “Terlingua” draws its name from a Texas ghost town (evoking both a mental space and thematic concerns) but offers an almost Caribbean vibe, bouncing along as Nourallah offers a Robert Herrick argument, presumably addressed as much to himself as to anyone. The following song, “Permanent Holiday” makes a subtle stylistic shift while capturing the previous mood for its new setting—the imaginative landscape of an unending tropical vacation. Nourallah challenges the listener to actually make a change, to escape the “so many gadgets that we’re distracted by.”
While expanding his sound, however, Nourallah doesn’t stray for too long from a core concern of his writing—how to move brightly through a crumbling world. Songs like “Crocodiles” or the dub-influenced “Two Years” insist on the breaking the effects of life. If it’s true, as Nourallah sings in “Tokens of Your Cruelty” that “Everything gets damaged over time / Everyone gets damaged over time,” it’s also true that we can’t settle there. Across the album, Nourallah dismisses the easy outs, like looking to a fictionalized past, seeking escapist fantasies to disengage.
“To the Desert” offers romance as an option, but lines like “You are thirst and thirst is all I know” carry with them more than a hint of danger. Closing number “Prisoner”—co-wrriten by and performed with Dixie Chick and Court Yard Hound Martie Maguire—provides no hope, and ends the album with Nourallah asking, “Please let me go.” Rather than a song of despair, though, it’s one of closure. When Nourallah asks in “Terlingua,” at the edge of desolation, confronting dead men, bullies, and man-eaters, “Are we gonna live? / Tell me are we gonna live tonight?” he was secretly answering his own question. That song, that questioning, and that recognition is the way out. The album’s second half pushes through hurt and loss, unrequited lust and decay, but the point is just that it pushes through. If Nourallah ends his album as a “Prisoner,” he ends it on his terms, acknowledging what’s there, and moving on. The skeleton in this closet isn’t the secret spilling out, but the death being locked up. He sang a decade ago that “the world is full of people who want to hurt you,” and Skeleton Closet is the music that first withstands that, and then moves beyond it, convinced not only that “we’re gonna win,” but that we already have.