Friday, 28 October 2011
"Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds" (2011) (News, Views and Music 119)
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds” (2011)
Everybody’s On The Run/Dream On/If I Had A Gun/The Death Of You And Me/(I Wanna Live A Dream In My) Record Machine/AKA...What A Life!/Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks/AKA...Broken Arrow/Stranded On The Wrong Beach/Stop The Clocks
Occasionally on our website we’ll mention how a particular album happens to be ‘in fashion’ at a particular point in time, coincidentally perfect for reflecting the hopes and fears at a point in time. On hearing said album the public will fall at the artist’s feet and contemporary critics will lap it all up as being ‘clever’ and ‘pertinent’, whilst those who listen decades later will wonder why so many people fell for what was, by the artists’ standards, a very average album indeed. We’ve seen it before with such diverse AAA albums as ‘Sgt Pepper’s (everyone’s favourite Beatles record by those who were there at the time, the least favourite by those who weren’t), ‘Harvest’ (the sensitive singer-songwriter record of the early 70s, which is generally regarded by fans as the weakest of Neil Young’s early records) and ‘Graceland’ (perfect for the ‘world united’ feel of the times but a pale shadow of the Brazilian and Cuban work on Paul Simon’s next few albums). We’re about to see it happening again because, while I write, Beady Eye are being pilloried for being, in Liam Gallagher’s own phrase ‘Outta Time’, whilst critics are falling over themselves to praise the slightly mystical, slightly troubled and slightly bonkers feel of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. This week ‘HFB’ became the first Oasis-linked album to make #1 since 2005, overshadowing Beady Eye’s effort (which only made #9) and doubtless helping to give Noel Gallagher an even bigger ego than the one he’s already got.
‘HFB’ isn’t a truly bad album, but it certainly isn’t the classic people are hailing it to be and it’s so much a product of these troubled, recession-hit times that it’s going to sound mighty wonky and dated in a decade or three, whatever Noel chooses to do next. Things aren’t helped by the fact the only four decent songs (and they are superb, I have to say) have been known to Oasis fans for years, some of them for a decade or more. True fans like me find it hilarious that so many songs like ‘Everybody’s On The Run’ and ‘Stop The Clocks’ are being hailed as so pertinent to our times when they actually date from 2003 and 2000 respectively. We’ve seen it happen before as music collectors and doubtless will see it again but, for the moment the assumption that HFB represents a glowing return to form is about as likely as claiming that ‘Be Here Now’ is the most-loved Oasis album.
It’s inevitable that reviewers will spend most of their reviews of this record comparing it to Beady Eye’s first effort (reviews on ‘news and views 93’) – well done Noel for waiting six months to give that album room to grow (and die) before clobbering Laim with his effort. That said, most reviewers beat the ‘Beady Eye’ album to a slow death but I loved it as it took the Oasis sound somewhere new but in slight, small steps that most fans could manage, mixing philosophy with rock. Noel’s effort has gone for all-out philosophy and moody landscapes with hardly any guitars and lots of mellotron-sounding synths – the sound of a man inspired according to most reviews I’ve seen; the oldest cliche in the book according to me. In truth, the only way Noel’s effort betters his brother’s is by timing – for all of its intriguing lyrics and soundscapes and the welcome appearance of some of Noel’s best songs in years (albeit ones written 10 years ago), ‘High Flying Birds’ doesn’t rock. Beady Eye took the old ‘wall of noise’ sounds and grew it, slimming it down to give it fire and space to breathe on ‘Bring The Light’ and using it to adopt a sort of swamp-filled epic of reverberations on a ballad of all things, ‘The Morning Son’. Here Noel hasn’t so much ‘moved on’ from the ‘wall of noise’ technique that’s been the bedrock of the Oasis sound since the beginning as jumped into trendy synths head-first – and all good readers of this site will know what happens when albums try to align themselves too much with the technology of the day (clue: it doesn’t sound good). Just have a look at the curiously titled ‘Somewhere In Between’ documentary that was on Channel 4 this week: Noel’s mouth is saying ‘I’m so pleased I came to LA to mix this album...they made it sound good...we really worked at it until each and every track sounded brilliant’ while his eyes are going ‘What the hell am I doing in LA working with these geezers I don’t know or understand? Help me!’ In fact, if you’d been missing from the planet for the past 18 years and didn’t know who Noel Gallagher was, you’d be hard pressed to know that he was a guitarist in the world’s greatest rock band since the 70s having heard this album and seen the documentary. Noel must be happy with the sales of the album and all the attention he’s getting, but is he happy wsith the album because – the odd delicious vocal aside (‘AKA...Broken Arrow’ might be his best in years) he just doesn’t sound comfortable here, even on songs where he’s already proved he knew what he was doing (in the Oasis vaults).
This is the point where most reviewers say ‘ooh...freed of the ‘rock band’ shackles this is the point where Noel goes back to his old sound on ‘The Masterplan’ or ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. In truth, it sounds more like ‘Mucky Fingers’, the unlovable one-note plod that ruined three whole minutes of the otherwise strong ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ LP. Back in the day – heck as recently as that 2005 album – Noel proved himself to be one of our most imaginative writers, determined to take his music somewhere near and not rest on old achievements, even if this songs nearly all came with that recognisable, bedrock sound. Without those guitars to nail his songs to the floor they float to the sky and sound wishy-washy and vague, with his customary half-written, fill-in-the-gaps-yourself philosophy lyrics (which others find so irritating but I find so touching, for the most part at least) now sounding like gibberish rather than a knowing ‘ahh, we all know what that means, even if I didn’t actually spell it out’ type wink. The only ‘new’ things you will learn from Noel the songwriter here are the four previously-recorded (or at least demoed) tracks and why strong, clean mixes that sound clear as a whistle don’t suit his grounded, reality-strucken sound. I actually had to stop myself from choking with laughter when the presenter of the channel 4 documentary on the making of this album had the audacity to say: ‘writing about fantasies is all very well when you’re 25...but now that he’s 40 Noel has to write about what he knows’. Because that’s exactly what’s wrong with this album: there’s not one slab of autobiography on the six ‘new’ tracks and not one moment where we fell that Noel is living, rather than imagining, what he tells us. Only one, perhaps two, of these ‘new’ songs sound like they have anything to add to the Noel Gallagher canon – and they’re arguably about Noel’s reflections on other people and the world around him. I for one felt as if Noel and Liam lived every single one of those Oasis songs, apart perhaps from last album ‘Dig Out Your Soul’, that Noel did know what ‘walking slowly down the hall, faster than a cannonball’ felt like, that he did want to ‘live forever’, that on – in the zenith of the early Oasis catalogue – ‘Slide Away’ wasn’t just a lot of nonsense but the most real and heartfelt end to a broken up relationship this side of Neil Young. I don’t get any of that from ‘High Flying Birds’, which even has the udacity to borrow the opening ‘cough’ from ‘Morning Glory’ as if to suggest Noel is picking up where he left off – not likely, my friend, there’s nothing here (again on the six new tracks) that’s even close to forging a connection to your real, ‘core’ audience like the days of old. A lot of fans have been comparing this album to Wings (because if Oasis were The Beatles where do you go from there...)- which seems odd given how unloved Wings seem to be at the moment (it’s all fashion, give it time...) That’s true so far as it goes – the odd song apart Macca’s production techniques got better but his honesty and songwriting got worse, or at least further removed from his innermost thoughts without Lennon there to goad him on – will Noel have the same problem without Liam, producing glossier and glossier albums that sound better and better but somehow lose that vital spark? Just a thought.
Alright, alright, I just can’t let it go. If Noel thinks so differently to his brother then why is his album artwork so similar to Beady Eye’s? It’s been six months since that album so surely his art department had time to think ‘hmm...the circus themes already been taken’ and think of something else? For the record the cover art sums up the similarities and differences between the two – Beady Eye’s lettering was raw, retro, rocking, surprisingly enough Victorian, depicting circus ‘freaks’ and animal acts from the days of old, when circuses were grungy and sense-stimulating (the idea probably came from their Noel-baiting song ‘Three Ring Circus’). Noel’s version is pristine and modern, with fancy lettering offering the way to have our ‘fortunes told’ and that annoying album tag line about how ‘it’s never too late to be who you wanna be’. Liam is raw and rocky, in awe to how rock stars lived in days gone by even if the Beady Eye album came with surprisingly large dollops of finesse between the heavier tracks, whilst Noel is modern, pristine, ‘with it’. It’s the old Lennon versus McCartney debate in other words, with the two likely to grow further and further apart in sound over the next few solo albums, even if they occasionally trample on each other’s feet on song ideas and titles (both Lennon and McCartney sang about the Irish troubles, you know). In that example is to hold true over the next few years then we’ve got records of such heights (and such lows) to come, and it’s true that already this album has it’s fair share of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and ‘Frog Songs’, even if it sounds aurally much more like ‘Ram’ than ‘McCartney’.
While I’m on the subject, one of the main ‘themes’ for this album suggests Noel’s been listening to a lot of ‘Band On The Run’. In fact, we know he has – Noel took over editing Mojo magazine a couple of months back and said that he’d just bought the new deluxe version and heard it for the first time and had fallen in love with ‘1985’ in particular. That figures. Using the ‘old’ song ‘Everybody’s On The Run’ as a starting point, this is a song about escape and what it means to be ‘free’. Even the title of Noel’s band seems similar to ‘Wings’, although it’s actually named after the work of another AAA band, Jefferson Airplane and one of their best songs (even if they didn’t actually write it – Billy Edd Wheeler did – and it remained unreleased for five years after they recorded it. See news and views 116 for more). Just to add to the flavour ‘Record Machine’ features a ‘preview’ of ‘Stop The Clocks’, just as ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ and ‘1985’ ‘borrowed’ from other tracks on the ‘Band On The Run’ album’. Oasis fans have long searched the band’s albums for Beatles references and the good news is there are two, both ‘solo’ references pointedly, to ‘watching the wheels’ and the slightly more obscure ‘sitting on the back seat of my mind’, a track from ‘Ram’ (Beady Eye too owe much to ‘Instant Karma’ on ‘The Roller’ and ‘3 Legs’ on ‘3 Ring Circus’ – also a track from ‘Ram’ (is this Noel telling his brother he’s got the point, but he’s above such criticism? Or have the brothers just been playing the album a lot for some reason?) Noel also references his other ‘love’ here too: The Kinks. Most fans have guessed that ‘The Death Of You And Me’ is based on ‘Dead End Street’ (just as ‘The Importance Of Being Idle’ was in 2005), but did you also notice the reference to ‘village greens’ in ‘Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks’ (another very Ray Davies song). Noel even works with the Crouch End Chorus, you know the one who turned Ray Davies’ ‘Orchestral’ re-workings of old songs in 2009 into the worst Kinks project ever and must be amazed at how many rock and rollers want to work with them when their performances are...competent at best. (Again if you’ve seen the ‘Something In Between’ documentary, look at Noel visiting the Crouch End Chorus rehearsal of his songs in their leader’s house: the voice-over says ‘I was really pleased and overwhelmed...’ whilst the quizzical raised eyebrow says ‘this is a joke...right?’) Finally, there’s a bit of a Pink Floyd lilt too, with Noel ‘lost inside my head behind the wall’, a line that could almost be from ‘The Wall’ album and comes on a song about isolation and madness not a million miles removed from that record.
Keeping with the Beady Eye theme, most critics have said how nicely Noel seems to be taking the whole ‘Oasis split’ theme, unlike brother Liam whose already admitted a few of the attacks on the first Beady Eye album, even if the mood there is mainly philosophical shoulder-shrugging and gratitude for having the band while it lasted. Don’t be fooled: there’s just as many, if not more, digs at Beady Eye on this album its just that, like McCartney in 1971-2, they’re hidden rather better than Liam’s and can only be found by fans who ‘know’ the story (as much as we can know it yet, with the two brothers disagreeing on everything to do with how the split happened). ‘Everybody’s On The Run’ doesn’t have many new words since we first heard it in 2003 but one of those lines is ‘you’ve been drifting and stealing, trying to walk in my shoes but they don’t fit you’ (a possible reference to Liam taking over the old Oasis sound and beating his brother to a release date); ‘Was that ‘Songbird’ singing? Dream on, ‘cause that’s got no meaning’ from ‘Dream On’ (‘Songbird’ being Liam’s only single release in the Oasis years and his only song on the ‘Stop The Clocks’ compilation allowed) and ‘I’ll see you on the way down...calling across the airwaves’ (which is clearly a refernce to another musician of some sort – given the two album’s close gestation periods, Liam’s band seems likely). Most critics, if they care at all, seem to blame Liam for the split and while it’s true he pushed his luck a few times by turning up late to sessions (or not at all to the early dates for ‘Dig Out Your Soul’) and while we’ll probably never get to the bottom of who threw what because of Liam’s clothing advert in the Oasis tour brochure, it speaks volumes that Liam successfully persuaded his two fellow bandmates to follow him into Beady Eye and that it was Noel who went solo. Just saying, in an attempt to redress the balance like.
Oh and how early did Noel feel the split coming? Because its certainly odd that, during his least prolific run of form (2002-2008) he should write four of the best tracks of his career – and then quietly shelves them, whilst putting out garbage like ‘Get Off Your High Horse Lady’ and ‘Mucky Fingers’ (plus the odd classic like ‘Falling Down’ it has to be said). You see, if aren’t a passionate Oasis collector who has to hear everything Oasis ever did then you won’t know how wonderful the four ‘old’ songs on this album truly are. ‘Everybody’s On The Run’, first heard as a sketchy soundcheck version in 2003, is a paranoid stomper that sounds like ‘Gas Panic’ without the drama, sleepwalking it’s way through a truly terrifying production where things seem to trip us up at every turn. I still prefer the ‘hollow’ version of just Noel and a guitar, left alone against the world, but given how tough finishing this song must have been (Noel moaned in an interview for Mojo how distracting it was to hear versions of the song by oasis fans who’d ‘finished it up for me’), it’s still worth waiting for. ‘If I Had A Gun’, another song whose early version was similarly bare-bones and of a similar vintage, also sounds great, benefitting from having everything thrown at it because it’s a song that can stretch to take it. ‘I Wanna Live A Dream...’ is a masterpiece, a Kinks-like song of escape and imagination borne from frustration and horror as only the post-2000 Noel knows how to write, even if it sounds identical to the version I first heard on bootlegs in 2002. Finally, ‘Stop The Clocks’ is the one song Noel admits he’s had around for a whole and never got right after 10 years of trying and is one of the best songs of his career, ominous and scary and back to the life-versus-death debate last heard in ‘The Masterplan’, still (rightly) quoted as one of Noel’s best songs of all (and left on a b-side for crying out loud!) For the money, this new version with screechy tacked-on guitar solo (at last – oh hang on, it’s not played by Noel apparently!) and over-done vocals is a pale shadow of the one still in the Oasis vaults, but at least it doesn’t mess around with things too much.
Four great songs is normally enough for an album if the others are of at least a vaguely decent quality, so I’m in quandary. Do I celebrate the fact that Noel’s finally dug out some of his best music – or curse him for leaving it unloved all those years, returning to them only to spice up his first solo album? What I applaud him for is integrating these songs so well: most fans won’t know the difference and just hear how these songs ‘fit’, a fact that’s already ‘fooled’ lots of critics who don’t know their Oasis history (shame on you!) There’s a woefully despondent feel to this album, for all its cooked-up production techniques and talk of liberty and moving on. Paranoia runs the album’s theme a close second, with song after song about how everyone is out to get you and how sometimes all you can do is survive. For a man whose taken the past three years off, in his own words, to look after his family, bring up his new baby and take his other children to school, there isn’t half an uncomfortable feeling about this album – which again seems to have passed most people by. Just the song titles (by far the most inventive and eccentric part of this album) seem to tell a sort of story: ‘Everybody’s On The Run’ ‘If I Had A Gun’ ‘The Death Of You And Me’ ‘Stranded On The Wrong Beach’ and ‘Stop The Clocks’. The happiest and most positive album since ‘Morning Glory’? Have these people not been listening?! There’s clearly a crisis of some sorts here, even if its a crisis just in Noel’s head, and I wait in anticipation to see if its going to continue on the next few albums now that Noel is a success and his record has been well received (by seemingly everyone but me) and he doesn’t have that pressure on him any more.
What is the significance of the ‘cough’ at the start of this album? Does it mean everything made after the similar cough at the start of ‘Morning Glory’ is null and void and we’re now getting the real Noel? Or is he aligning himself with Oasis’ early years, unlike Beady Eye who are still carrying on with the late-period band sound pretty well (but better, so far). Even if is a genuine coincidence, it somehow sounds wrong here at the start of the record, whereas the ‘Morning Glory’ one sounded so right: a mistake, to remind us how ‘human’ this band is, however lush the sounds suddenly got. Here it sounds wrong, the only ‘mistake’ in a surface of sheen and all too aware of itself, in the way that a cough can be self-aware.
Anyway, the first track proper ‘Everybody’s On The Run’ is one of the best on this album, not coincidentally because it’s one of the oldest. Musically, its a mix of ‘Little By Little’ and ‘Roll It Over’, with the same vocal samples-played-as-an-instrument vibe and sweeping eerie strings straight out of ‘I Am The Walrus’. Noel’s written himself a better lyric in the past (so much for him being ‘liberated’ – the opening couplet rhyme of ‘ceiling’ and ‘feeling’ has been used in dozens of past Oasis songs), but together with the angst in the music there’s a very ‘real’ feeling about this song that entices one of his better vocals on the album too, pitched at the higher end of his voice (double-tracked wonderfully well in a call-and-answer session that sounds like ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’). There’s also a fascinating second verse, the one we’ve already spoken about ‘walking a mile’ in shoes that don’t fit. As far as I can make out this is the one new bit of the song that’s been added, which is interesting, with Noel writing his best lines on the album about the Oasis split as an ‘update’ to an old song written when the cracks were just starting to show. The best part of the song though is the chorus – Noel’s well known for writing songs with lines like ‘hang on...you’ve got to hold on’, but this time he sounds like he means it, suddenly switching back to a major chord from a minor one and trying to ‘settle’ a song that, however much he pulls, is just too miserable to move out of the key that’s its prison. The first time he sings it it sounds like release – with each time the chorus repeats it sounds more and more futile, because we know the narrator is never going to find a way out of here and that’s the art of good songwriting. There’s a swagger in the backing track that sounds like the Oasis of old but at the same time this is new, thrilling, enticing, with a turbulent and angular set of chord changes that keeps pulling the rug out from our feet every time we ‘settle’ into this unfamiliar world. Even the dreaded Crouch End Chorus only sound here wrong part of the time (their ‘ahhhs’ over the strings are awful, full of insincerity in a way that Oasis never were till 2008 but the instrumental ‘middle eight’ when the traditional rock instruments break off to leave just that one line against a mixed up bed of synths and confusion and chaos is lovely, in a ghostly way). Once again, Noel is talking to his audience first hand, as if we’re there with him in his hour of need, with the elder Gallagher equating his feelings of fear and paranoia with those suffered by us all at one time or another – and its ‘us’ he’s telling to ‘hold on’ as much as his wife or partner. Alas, this oft-used Oasis trick doesn’t crop up on the album again...A shame, because ‘Everybody’s On The Run’ is one of the highlights of the album and one of the few cases on the album where a glossy production helps get the most out of a strong song.
Alas ‘Dream On’ sounds like those occasional ‘filler’ tracks we used to get on Oasis albums from ‘Be Here Now’ onwards, ones that try a bit too hard to please and just end up getting on your nerves. Noel’s always been a bit of a ‘stomper’ – tracks like ‘Lyla’ have such a strong beat it’s hard to do anything else to them - and this can work on songs like ‘Lyla’ and ‘Importance Of Being Idle’ where there’s a bit of story tacked on too. But it’s hard to know what ‘Dream On’ is about: there’s a first verse about ‘running out of batteries’ and dropping away from the rat race which is cute but not as revealing as it thinks it is and a second about being lazy, ‘hiding from the razor blade’ and passing up daily routines just to sit there and do nothing. So far so good, but the chorus of ‘dream on...’ has nothing to do with this at all and there’s a further curious reference to ‘Songbirds’ (which only fans like me will get are an attack on Liam’s best known composition) and the nonsense line ‘shout it for me!’, which is presented here as the song’s big hook. Oh along with some ‘na na na na nas’ thrown in for a middle eight that has nothing to add to the rest of the song except delaying it. They also sound slightly sarcastic too, as if this some sort of ‘revenge’ or ‘pastiche’ of Liam (Noel’s only kind comment about Liam in the whole of the excellent ‘Time Flies’ Oasis DVD of promos is ‘he was always good for a na-na-na him, the singer’). Funny as that is out of context, in context it’s just irritating and you want him to shut the hell up – not a feeling I’ve often had on one of Noel’s songs before. It’s as if Noel’s gone back to the beginning of his songwriting career, throwing things together to see how they’ll stick without the experience he learnt from 14 years in the world’s biggest modern band and the result is a mess, likes the much-hated ‘Get Off Your High Horse, Lady’ but with even less point to it. That’s a shame because with a tune to go with the rhythm and a different chorus to go with the interesting verses this could have been a fine ‘day in the life’ song a la Brian Wilson. As it is, the tempo drags, the beat’s monotonous and by the end of the song you’ll be so sick of the chorus that you never ever want to hear this song again.
‘If I Had A Gun’ is much better, the second of four ‘old’ tracks re-made for the album, with a scatty hallucinogenic lyric that appears on first listening to be rather harsh and angry but is actually a tender love song (the narrator only wants the gun so he can shoot a hole in the clouds and let the sunshine pour over his beloved). That twist is the best on a song that’s full of surprises: we’ve never actually heard Noel this tender before or so in love; in fact Noel is one of those writers who only writes about love affairs when they’re on the way down, not up, and so it’s lovely to hear a song like this once in a while. In fact, he sounds like a teenager, unable to speak to the vision of loveliness he’s just spotted ‘across a room’ and hoping that his penetrating stare hasn’t given him away. If this is Noel in love then, well, it’s been a long time coming and makes you rather pleased that Noel’s got here at last after a storming series ofg unhappy songs about love (‘Slide Away’ ‘Little By Little’ ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’ etc) Again, though, Noel’s natural knack of writing uplifting and memorable melodies apparently in his sleep seems to have deserted him and there’s one too many repeats of the wordless ‘ahhhhhhhhhh’ chorus, plus Noel’s vocal sounds badly mixed and a bit amateurish for him (like we say, he really isn’t that used to singing these kinds of songs). I’d much rather have a song like this one, that tried hard even if its imperfect, than a lot of the songs on this record though and its far too good to lie in a vault for years so that only monkeynuts collectors like me can get their hands on it. There’s also a guitar back in the room – the only time that Noel plays one on the whole record – which is highly welcome too. The weakest of the ‘old’ songs, then, and mangled badly by the production, but with a lot going for it.
Now then, what makes everyone whose ever heard a Kinks record want to write like Ray Davies – and fail? The dialogue-ish patter and observation of people playing in the sunshine that’s soon to fade of ‘The Death Of You And Me’ sounds so much like a Kinks song that I had to check the writing credits just to make sure Ray Davies wasn’t in there somewhere. Noel’s always been an ‘observer’ in the same way as Ray, which is why his early songs came to mean so much for a generation who hadn’t had any world class writers writing about their lives before, but here its hard to know what the point of the song is. The title seems to be making too much out of a song that, really, is about passing childhoods and never being able to get back to a time when we really did seem to have endless summers in their childhoods (the old line of course is that ‘when I look back it never seemed to rain in the summer holidays but of course it must have done’. Well let me tell you it rained every flipping summer in my childhood. Except for the times when it snowed). The twist of the song is that, even when happy the youngsters at the beach sense that the sun is setting and that worse is to come – exactly the sort of oppressive feeling that’s made this record such a ‘hit’ at present times, especially with the later in-the-present verse about finding an ‘apostle’ at the bottom of a bottle’ where everything seems hopeless. But there’s something topsy-turvy here – the children dance and have fun to the accompaniment of a tune that sounds like a funeral march – whilst the brief happy dancing chorus and verse about hitting the booze for escapism sound like a breezy jaunt, as if the song isn’t sure about which way is up and which way is down any more. There’s even a brass band in the middle, one that manages to sound both happy and oppressive at the same time, a very Ray Davies-sounding trick even if he never actually used it. A slab of social commentary merged into a song about nostalgia with a melody borrowed from ‘Idle’ and a poppy chorus that doesn’t belong, there’s simply too much going on in this song to make it work, even if individual bits of it work quite well (the image of the kids on the beach when its about to rain is perhaps the strongest one on the album). A better producer or even fellow band members would have got Noel to buck his ideas up a bit – but alas this promising but heavily flawed song is presented here as finished product.
‘I Want To Live A Dream In My Record Machine’ is the third song to have been around for years and is one of my all-time favourites, another song of nostalgia-as-escapism but using music as your transportation. At first I hated this modern version, which has added some scratchy strings, a slightly different vocal and a slightly longer ‘pause’ in the middle, after years of hearing the original but its growing on me now, even if I still prefer the 2002 rendition (which once had ‘Psychedelic’ added in the title between ‘My’ and ‘Record’ at this early stage). By any name, ‘Record Machine’ is a hymn to music that’s as hallowed for me as The Kinks ‘Jukebox Music’ or The Beach Boys’ ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’, a song about how important music is which clearly written for major fans like ‘us’ to enjoy. This song features some of the best lyrics from Noel in years, presenting a musical world where ‘all paths lead to glory’ and you’re so geared up into how wonderful the moment is that you have a right to act like the arrogant poser you end up becoming in your ‘ordinary’ life. A song about Noel’s realisation that the ability to write songs and unite groups of people he’s never met is special and not one everyone has and that he wants to live in ‘his’ musical world all the time because its far more perfect than his ‘real’ flawed being doing all the other things in life that human beings do, it’s fitting that this song should end up on a ‘solo’ rather than ‘band’ record. Noel was also right to re-do his vocal because this new one, a mix of arragonance and pride, fear and certainty, is among his best, while the addition of vocal-mellotron and strings at least makes sense on this track, added to a song that’s all about creating imaginary worlds that don’t exist. Above all, I feel ‘part’ of this song even if Noel’s written it for himself, because I too want to live in a record machine (don’t we all?!) and it has much more emotional resonance than the ‘newer’ tracks on this curious hybrid of an album.
The curiously titled ‘AKA...What A Life’ (what was this song also known as, then?!) is Noel’s debut single that’s reaching high up the charts as I write thisand it’s an obvious choice as a single, with its strong hooks and glossy production, even if its one of the shallowest songs on the album and Noel’s written it so far out of his ‘normal’ register he struggles to sing it. There’s only two verses to this song, which again appears to be nostalgic but is actually yet more gibberish (although it suggests that he does have a Jefferson fetish at the moment – this song steals wholesale from the Starship song ‘Ride The Tiger’, a metaphor for grabbing hold of life before opportunities pass you by). My main issues with this song are the length (two verses and no chorus? Surely this song deserves more!) and the fact that, even comparatively recently in the bad old days at the end of Oasis Noel used to set his sights higher than this (compare this song back to back with the similar ‘Falling Down’, the highlight from Oasis’ last LP, which packs so much more power and has so many more surprises). I never thought I’d hear Noel resorting to a chorus of ‘woo-hoo’ over and over because he can’t work out how to end a song and, despite the hook, there’s nothing new or different or exciting or well formed enough to actually enjoy. The only part of the song that does work is the bit that was added at the absolute last minute: the sample of clattering piano keys that falls throughout most of the song, adding an urgency that should have been an obvious solution after the work Oasis did on ‘Falling Down’. Oh dear, one album on from the horrible ‘Dig Out Your Soul’ and Noel can’t even reel off that album’s minor accomplishments as easily as he could just three years ago.
‘Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks’ is nothing special and would have been seen as ‘filler’ on all Oasis albums, but would you believe its the best ‘new’ song here?! Again there’s no real tune on this track, perhaps a legacy from Noel switching from guitar to piano to write and sticking to ‘safe’ block chords’ for his songs (again, has he just bought a complete Jefferson Airtplane/Starship catalogue, because its remarkably similar to Grace Slick’s style of playing?!) But the lyrics are better than most on the album, a sort-of ‘update’ of Ray Davies’ fading British idyll where even the traditionalists have left communing at the ‘village green’ to sit in front of their TV sets and be taken in by Government propoganda. ‘They go to heaven on their holidays’ sings Noel sarcastically about the casual church-goers he sees, communing in a church to gossip or because they’ve been told to, rather than going for the services themselves, while the image of the un-read letters in the mailbox, sent by those who can’t ‘afford’ (whether by economical, emotional or geographical means) to get to a service is a classic worthy of the Noel of old. The twist in the song is that these same ‘helpless’ souls who the church are unable to help do get to touch the sublime, the spiritual, whatever you want to call it – but only when they stick their jukebox on, find peace in the fact that others suffer like they do and lose themselves in the music – a neat return to ‘Record Machine’. The chorus of ‘on and on we go...’ is a good one too, with people – the narrator included – going about their daily business in oblivion to the needy and poor waiting in vain for some help outside their doors. In the wake of the riots a few months back, this song speaks volumes, although given the recording dates it seems Noel wrote this song long before and just happened to me observational than most (Incidentally, why have we just wasted thousands of pounds on a survey that studied footage of the riots and told us that – wait for it - most of the kids in the riots were ‘young and came from under-privileged backgrounds’ – I could have told you that and so I suspect would everyone else, except maybe Daily Mail readers). I really really wish Noel could have written a tune, instead of just putting these words to the same ‘stomping’ rhythm we’ve already heard on this album too many times – but ‘Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks’ is undeniably the direction to go in judging by the rest of this album. More please!
‘AKA...Broken Arrow’ (wha-?) is almost as despondent as ‘Little By Little’ ‘Where Did It All GO Wrong?’ and ‘Gas Panic’, but unlike those songs it doesn’t revel in its misery so much as uproot it. The use of a jaunty melody, unhinged only by a counterpart from another mellotron, just doesn’t work, sounding like its a happy and upbeat Noel being forced at gunpoint to write a melody for a set of lyrics that simply don’t fit. Had Noel written this song in the same vain as the three songs I’ve just mentioned this could have been a classic. You see, Noel’s narrator is so down that even his guardian angel seems to have abandoned him, although Noel feels a part of ‘her’ dead world more than she does in his ‘real’ world because she always seemed so alive and without her he feels so dead. At times this song sounds like a folk legend, full of lines like ‘she roll over in a misty morning, setting sail for where the four winds blow’ and it is in the line of traditional songs about death and wanting to speak to the ghost of the one you loved. But is it just me or does Noel sing this oh so unhappy song as if he’s pleased, as if he’s ‘moved on’ and didn’t need her in his life anyway? There’s something callous about this song and choice of melody, which is a shame because the words themselves stand up as one of the best of Noel’s efforts in the past 10 years and could have been made into something special. Odd.
‘(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach’ is another surprisingly sad and lonely song, late on what has been up till now a largely positive album, sung as a pop song. Indeed, it sounds like a Beady Eye song and may well be Noel’s biggest song about the Oasis tiff. In this context, a cliched song about waving goodbye to a loved one takes on a new meaning, especially with the sarcastic glee with which Noel sings it here. ‘I’ll see you on the re-bound’ sings Noel, leaving his loved one in order to make ‘a long journey’, although what’s really intriguing is the next line, repeated immediately to stress how important it is. ‘The length of my journey depends on the weight of my load’ – what?! Is this Noel telling us that the length of his career will last only as long as feels he has something to say? That it will only last as long as he wants to prove his brother wrong? Or am I on the wrong track entirely and this is about some other journey I can’t quite get a hold of. Things get even more confused with that pained ending – sung as a joyous pop song don’t forget: ‘Sinking in the quicksand, stranded on the wrong beach, come and rescue me’. I spoke in my introduction about how uncomfortable Noel seems in his ‘new’ environment full of weeks of re-mixing, choir overdubs and string arrangements and synths blotting out guitars, something that goes double when you actually see footage of Noel in LA working on this album, a stranger trying to find himself and who he once was. Is this his subconscious telling us that he’s ‘stranded’ in a place he doesn’t want to be? (Remember that image of the beach in childhood from ‘The Death Of You and Me?’ Could it be Noel doubting why he’s given Oasis up for this?!) Is this him reaching out for his brother, to make up amends because he really can’t work as a solo artist any more? On a song like this, which pulls us one way with the words and another entirely with the music, it’s hard to know what to think!
And so on to ‘Stop The Clocks’, one of the key Noel Gallagher songs of all time and easily his best since ‘Little By Little’ eight years ago (although it actually dates even further back than that, to 1999 or thereabouts). ‘High Flying Birds’ is, ultimately, worth buying for this song alone, even if I still don’t think that Noel’s quite got the ‘definitive’ version of the song he’s been aiming for all these years. If the title seems familiar, that’s because this song – Oasis’ most famous outtake – was originally slated to appear on the compilation of the same name till Noel decided to keep it for himself. I’m glad because, while messing about with it seems sacrilegious after knowing it for so long, fans deserve to hear it at last and Noel’s vocal full of mournful wordless sighs is splendid here, even if the choir and strings aren’t. I love the synth line though, nicking passages from Abba’s last great unknown song ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’ (also a song about death) which is the perfect fit. If you know the ‘WH Auden’ poem ‘Stop The Clocks’ you’ll know what this song is about, a reverie about death and what might happen, imagined not from the view of a loved one left behind but from a loved one going past the ‘void’ to who-knows-where? on the biggest mystery of all. Sinking to a death he doesn’t want to face, because his loved ones don’t want to see him suffer anymore, this is the narrator ‘locking the box’ of what made up his character on Earth, acknowledging that all his unfinished business now has to stay unfinished and wondering ‘where I’ll rise’ if he ever ‘wakes’ from his eternal sleep. The lyrics to this song are perfectly posed and the eerie ghostly backing vocals, calling Noel’s lead to his rest, are superbly handled, imagining a music fans’ biggest question of the afterlife: when I die, will there be no sound? And if not, what will fill that gap between our ears? Wow – words cannot express how brave and gusty this song is, cornering head on a subject that remains the ultimate taboo in rock and roll, handling it with such a sensitivity. Until the coda at least. Noel’s moaned in interviews for years about not knowing how to end this song which is largely why it’s been left unreleased: after all, how do you put the unknowable into music? But his answer here, a sudden burst of friction with a squeally over-played guitar solo by special guest Paul Stacey is not the way to go. If that cacophony of noise really is what I have to look forward to then I actually want to stay here, in a world full of crooked politicians taking my money away from me, of injustice and insubordination and of The Spice Girls on TV. It spoils what was almost the highlight of Noel’s career, at least since ‘The Masterplan’, a song of similar scope and ambition. Actually no, on second thoughts I wish the band had used it as the last track – and the only new recording – on that ‘Stop The Clocks’ compilation, the last item ever released under the ‘Oasis’ name. It would have been a perfect goodbye and I wouldn’t have had to sit through that noisy misguided ending.
Hmm, that leaves me in a quandary. You see, ‘Stop The Clocks’ is magnificent piece of work and I’d put through anything on the rest of the album to hear it, even some of the puzzling songs we get here. But calling this album a ‘return to form’ on the back of a song we should have heard 11 years ago – back when writing songs like this was the norm rather than the exception for Noel - merely shows up how average most of the rest of the album is. Sure there are other tracks that I’ll be adding to my MP3 player but, hang on a minute, they’re the three songs I had in my collection anyway (along with ‘Jesus Freaks’) and only ‘Everybody’s On The Run’ actually improves on any of those recordings. By contrast, it was only the two noisy rockers from the Beady Eye album that didn’t make my MP3 player and they had one song (‘Wigwam’) that was arguably up to even the best of this record, with the same emotional impact for me as Noel’s highlight ‘Stop The Clocks’. In truth, I really don’t ‘get’ ‘High Flying Birds’ even though the signs – the Jefferson Airplane name, the choice of old songs, the use of mellotron is all good and I had genuinely been looking forward to this album since time immemorial (well, since Oasis split anyway).
Perhaps that’s why I feel so let down. Not because this album is so bad but because it simply doesn’t try – freed of having to fit songs by Liam, Gem and Andy onto an album the sky should have been the limit for Noel and we could have gone anywhere and everywhere and been back in home for tea. As it is we got same old same old and then some weird tracks that went in two separate directions at once. What Noel really needs to do in my opinion is get back to the rock and roll that inspired him, give up trying to impress anyone except himself and cast away the crowds of suits and wannabes who re-mixed his record and wrung all the life out of it. If he’s got any other ‘lost’ songs sitting in his attic up to this standard, then for god’s sake record them with someone who trusts you and understands you – or leave them alone. Get rid of the choir, the strings, the mellotron and the people telling you that its good enough – because by your high standards, it isn’t. For all my bad comments and snipes in this article, it’s because I can hear the promise in these album’s songs (yes, even the new ones) that I’m so cross and it’s because know the talent of Noel Gallagher in the past – as ‘Clocks’ and the other older songs shows - that I’m so bitterly disappointed. ‘High Flying Birds’ doesn’t aim high at all, it’s the least inventive and original album Noel’s ever worked on and he’s thrown out all the things that made Oasis work as well as the things he felt were holding him back. Any album with ‘Stop The Clocks’ on it is far from a disaster, but equally, any album with songs that aim as low as the nonsense of ‘Dream On’ is far from the triumph everyone is calling this album. I was afraid of getting the Beady Eye record, worried that they would let me down and so relieved to hear that they’d actually pushed the Oasis sound that little bit further, whilst still sounding at times like they always had. But ‘High Flying Birds’ doesn’t reach as far as I’d hoped, with Noel still in the doldrums he’s suffered on and on since 2000 and even though everyone else seems to think this album’s brilliant now, I dare to think what we’ll be saying about it in a few decades time. If we remember it at all. Sorry Noel, this bird’s a turkey.