Monday, 27 April 2015
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds "Chasing Yesterday" (2015)
Riverman/In The Heat Of The Moment/The Girl With The X-Ray Eyes/Lock All The Doors/The Dying Of The Light/The Right Stuff/While The Song Remains The Same/The Mexican/You Know We Can't Go Back/Ballad Of The Mighty I
"Somewhere in the crowd she heard me jingle-jangling, like a memory that fades"
I've been wondering for the past four years now what the second flight of the former Oasis guitarist's sequel might sound like - and I wasn't expecting this. To recap slightly the world went 'mad fer it' (i.e the first album) in 2011, with every superlative under the sun even though the album was largely full of...nothing, six new songs that were easily the worst Noel had written in his career surrounded by four truly gorgeous Oasis outtakes that fans have long treasured on bootleg and which were either left unchanged ('Stop The Clocks') or ruined beyond repair ('Everybody Is On The Run' 'If I Had A Gun' - OK 'Record Machine' wasn't too bad). It's still the worst Oasis-related record in my collection (and yes I do own 'Be Here Now'!) and yet the world seemed to love it, which only goes to show that you can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time (insert topical David Cameron joke here). For four years now I've been fearing that Noel - not one to take compliments lightly - would end up stuck in the same box for the rest of his career. Namely sounding 'stupidly modern' rather than 'modern with a Noel Gallagher twist', for despite Noel's claims in interviews to hate modern music with a passion even greater than mine who truly would have been able to tell that first album apart from the likes of an Ed Sheeran or a Miley Cirus had those vocals and guitar solos been removed, those four older Oasis outtakes apart? With that Oasis wall of noise turned from the axe of old that used to cut through all things bland and artificial and songwriting going from pioneering to something tacky best described as 'safe', that record seemed a long long way from 'Don't Believe The Truth' never mind 'Definitely Maybe'.
Thankfully second album 'Chasing Yesterday' is...something, though I'm not honestly sure what. The record sounds at first to be very similar to its predecessor: the same bland thud going through all the songs, clattering drumming that's not a patch on even Tony McCaroll's from the first Oasis line-up and that same let's-insert-a-chorus-right-here! mentality that's been dogging Noel ever since Oasis Mark Two were born circa the year 2000. There are again six songs that I can't stand, leaving a similarly disappointing 40% listenable rate, but to be fair all of these half a dozen songs at least try to do something that's a little bit different and new and fail rather than try something totally bland and safe and fail as per last time. This time though the other four songs really are worthy of the Noel Gallagher name and are the first 'new' Noel songs to build up a bit of genuine excitement for a decade now. Even the expected ho-hum 'contemporary' recording, which is going to sound way more passé than the 1990s Oasis recordings within about five years I reckon, can't hide the excitement that's in the room - yes Noel still sounds entirely 'wrong' in most of these settings, but this time he sounds as if he wants to be there, rather than jumping on the bandwagon of the generation that's crept up behind him the past two decades.
The biggest surprise of all is that most of these new songs aren't born from Oasis' past or present but from an entirely new and unexpected direction: jazz! Yes, ever since the sarcastic tag added on to the end of classy 'Whatever' B-side 'It's Good To Be Free' ('Jazz...nice!') we've assumed that the genre was one that Oasis would never touch. After all, in many ways it's the antithesis of the adrenalin-fuelled aggression of their early rock sound or the pristine clarity of their ballads, with 'Be Here Now' proving how badly things can unravel when the band get carried away and have too much of a good thing. However that's the only word that can describe album highlights 'Riverman' and 'The Right Stuff' (ever so nearly the same song , but as it's a good one we'll let that pass). That covers two highlights and the album's biggest surprises, but even the other two new classics don't go anywhere near old territory or for that matter most new territory: 'In The Heat Of Moment' is the closest Noel has come to writing a Eurovision entry (like the other week's review, not meant as the insult many readers may take it to be), insanely catchy and sung somewhere between mischievous and parody (it's a lot better than our own woeful entry this year, with which we deserve to come last again - unlike last year's which bucked a declining decade trend to be almost enjoyable). And finally 'The Dying Of The Light' does return to pastures old, but only as old as the last CD, with a second song about the fear of death and growing old written from a much 'older' perspective than the (still better) 'Stop The Clocks'.
All four songs would have been highlights on any of the second half run of Oasis albums - which only pains me all the more because we have to put up with six songs that aren't even good enough to be filler. 'The Girl With X-Ray Eyes' is a dead crib off fellow AAA band's far more convincing rocker 'The Girl With The Hungry Eyes' from their 1979 'reboot' album 'Freedom At Point Zero' - and if it seems unlikely that Noel should have been listening to a by-then washed up prog rock outfit five years past their best trying to become punk rockers then remember that Noel got his band name from a recording by their first incarnation Jefferson Airplane. 'Lock All The Doors' is a middle-aged man's memory of what it used to be to rock, played by a woefully unconvincing band (just compare this back to back with Oasis B-side 'Headshrinker' or for more casual fans classic 'Rock and Roll Star' - this energy is false and repetitive and even Noel's stronger-than-average vocal can't save it). 'While The Song Remains The Same' is a third jazz song that's simply one too many, with the least memorable melody of the trio and very overwritten lyrics. 'The Mexican' is a so-called comedy song about 'taking crack' and smuggling drugs with a ploddy riff and a weird 'woah woah woah' chorus that sounds like the Paul McCartney Frog Song Chorus smoking illegal substances. Noel admitted was a last-minute addition to the album to 'lighten' the mood - despite the four excellent songs this is a record that painfully needs to be deeper, not lighter. 'You Know We Can't Go Back' is the kind of noisy thrash pop song that tends to be Noel's 'default' setting whenever he needs a song in a hurry, but this one isn't even up to 'Mucky Fingers' or 'Turn Up The Sun' (though it is, mercifully, an improvement on 'Get Off Your High Horse Baby'). Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the album closer 'The Ballad Of The Mighty I', which starts off as the sort of thing Abba would do in the modern world with all the modern trickery, an instant classic pop melody with a terrific and typical Noel Gallagher build - but then it stops, goes backwards to where it began and then limps its way into one of the most unmemorable Noel Gallagher choruses ever (I'll find you, yes I'll find you, If I gotta be the man who walks...I'll find you, yes I'll find you, if I gotta be the man who walks the Earth alone!') As Noel's expletive-filled DVD Commentary self would put it, 'absolute nonsense!' Sadly a dull sounding record, which sounds as if it's been polished with Mr Sheen for a good year, with a band who never quite get it together (the keyboards aren't bad to be fair, adding a mystical twinkly affair throughout, but the rhythm section is hopeless) can't even make the most of the worst tracks - or make the really good ones sound as perfect as they deserve to be.
So what do you make of an album that somehow simultaneously avoids most of the taps you had been dreading it would fall into - and yet still gets so many of the songwriting basics wrong? I mean just take the name 'Chasing Yesterday' (a title Noel came up with in a hurry and has since said he 'detests' - it's not too bad, certainly more interesting than 'High Flying Birds Volume II', but really doesn't suit what is a very forward thinking record. The album cover too is bland and unworthy even of a mixed album: I think it's meant to look like the Jam's 'All Mod Cons' sleeve (all those stripes and bold typeface, though without the same punch - then again every typeface and font going has been recycled by somebody by now). At least 'High Flying Birds' tried to be 'different' with its green neon-lighted garage look; curious too that after a career spent moaning about having his picture taken (which results in merely the band in small on 'Be Here Now' and the odd single sleeve) Noel has now appeared on 100% of all the releases under his own name; yes that's what solo singer-songwriters are meant to do nowadays but since when did Noel do what everyone else did? (Beady Eye have kept the Oasis tradition of appearing at best in shadowy pics in a CD's inner sleeve, though even 1995 period Oasis would never have been as bold as to use the bare-chested female model on 'Be').
Perhaps the biggest thing to take away from this album though is how much further on this record is from Oasis' sound without eradicating everything from it. Interestingly while the 'other' half of Oasis in Beady Eye all but drop the 'wall of sound' from their albums from day one (a couple of rockers on the first record aside), Noel - the chief architect of that sound - has been keen to maintain it. Though there was more of it on the first record, the fact that it's still here at all, a last bastion of 1990s excess amongst a modern contemporary sound that's more cut-down and sparse, is welcome. There's plenty of guitar solos too, the one thing that Beady Eye haven't quite been able to match on their twin records (despite the fact that Gem was drafted into Oasis in 2002 to all intents and purposes as the lead player, with Noel moving to rhythm). Less remarkable but still a neat touch are the many 'humanisms' Noel's been using on and off since 'Morning Glory' - a cough here, a count-in there. It all helps to soften the blow of the roboticness of the surroundings and is perhaps more useful in this context than ever before, as well as a charming nod to older fans that newer fans won't notice ort care about. You have to say too that Noel has kept much more of a 'pop' sensibility, with the catchy singalong melodies of 'Live Forever' and 'Wonderwall' cropping up occasionally (which is not an insult either: one of the main reasons Oasis and Beatles comparisons are forever turning up are that both right on the bubble between pop and rock, as light or as heavy as you want them to be and thus appealing to a wider audience than bands which are merely one or the other. It's a hard thing to pull off too: hardly any bands have managed it since the 1960s and those that have tend to be one thing then the other, not both simultaneously). The signs are encouraging - if only Noel can be persuaded to stop thinking he's competing with the modern artists whose sound is alien to him now (as it is to anyone else, like Noel, rapidly approaching their fifties) the third High Flying Bird record might yet soar like an eagle instead of float like a butterfly (this record) or sink like a turkey (the first one).
Noel does seem to have taken one criticism a bit too much to heart, though. The mutterings from many people, Oasis fans or not, on the band's 2008 split was 'perhaps they can drop their 1960s influences altogether at last and become a proper band!' Terrible logic as I'm sure most people reading this largely 1960s-centred site would agree with: the reason Oasis kept coming back to that sound wasn't just because they liked it but because it suited them. The Oasis years 1994-1997 where everything they touched turned to gold are brushed through with the same breezy optimism of the years 1964-1967 and the two fit like a glove, despite the fact that 1990s audiences still tended to prefer music that was harder-edged, aggressive and more cynical (as was inevitable for a decade coming after the artificial 1980s). Equally the Oasis albums from 1998-2005 play nicely on the melancholia of the 1968-1970 years, where dreams are just about kept alive but music alone isn't enough to change the world, even for rock and roll superstars. Beady Eye, typically, went 'no!' to the criticisms and if anything became even more 1960s than the end of the Oasis period, their first record 'Different Gear, Still Speeding' reflecting 'The White Album's eclecticism and the second 'Be' reflecting the slightly-more-polished-but-still-with-surprises sound of 'Abbey Road' (although we compared both records to Paul McCartney's first three records 'McCartney' 'Ram' and 'Wildlife', full of the bitterness of the disputes of old mingled with the joy of ever-widening horizons). By contrast 'High Flying Birds' and even more 'Chasing Yesterday' sounds like Lennon's anaemic comeback album 'Double Fantasy' : it cares too much what people think of it, what other 'modern' trends are doing, slides uncomfortably between youthful and middle aged points of views in the lyrics and while occasionally encouraging and sometimes beautiful is a poor substitute for the daredevil ways of old or even the 'Lost Weekend' phase (it's worth pointing out that the gap between albums from Noel is only one short of Lennon's entire 'househusband phase', but then record contracts to tend to work that way more nowadays than in 1980). For the record, while there's less 'wrong' with 'Double Fantasy' than, say, the newspaper politics of 'Sometime In New York City' that record still gets a lower mark from me courtesy of not trying (or, in something of a website catchphrase, 'its offensive in its very inoffensiveness').
The irony is that had Noel recorded his songs with a little more of the sixties swing and had the under-rated Beady Eye been slightly more prepared to go modern on their promising but slightly undercooked seconds album 'Be' then both halves of Oasis would have been in a stronger situation. Imagine an Oasis record with the better half of 'High Flying Birds' ('If I had A Gun' 'Everybody Is On The Run' 'Record Machine' 'Stop The Clocks') with the best of 'Different Gear' ('Millionaire' 'Three Ring Circus' 'Kill For A Dream' the glorious 'Wigwam'): not bad eh? Even with the 'missing' songs filled in at random that's one heck of an album to be reckoned with. While not quite as good the best halves of 'Be' ('Flick Of The Finger' 'Second Biter Of The Apple' The Noel-referencing 'Don't Brother Me') with the four highlights from 'Chasing Yesterday' ('Riverman' 'In The Heat Of The Moment' 'The Dying Of The Light' 'The Right Stuff'): again pretty good eh? The trouble is both halves of Oasis have got so used to having merely half a record to play with each that they seem to have struggled coming up with a full classic LP between them (though 'Different Gear' came closest): consider 'Yesterday' as a 'core' four song album with some B-sides and it starts to make more sense.
I've been trying hard to study this album for a 'theme' - something that's always harder to do with new releases than records I've played endlessly for twenty odd years (though saying that I bet I've heard 'Chasing Yesterday' more than most people have heard any Oasis CD already). The closest I can find is one of waiting to be rescued from something, or more usually someone, often while the weather is doing weird things with, interestingly, a few lyrics that seem to hint that Noel himself feels he's fallen short of his lofty goals recently (despite all the usual bluster in the press). Usually AAA members mean 'God' or 'inspiration' when they talk about the weather (Ray Davies and George Harrison in particular do it all the time) but I'm not sure either applies here - usually Noel is pointing towards a 'mood' in his songs like 'Cast No Shadow' or 'Turn Up The Sun' although he's never used the metaphor as often as he does here - perhaps it just rains a lot near Noel's house these days! 'Riverman' starts 'I travelled all this way to make amends' and finds him 'waiting in the rain' for something to happen: he spots a girl who 'electrifies the storm', building up the rain around him, but soon she's gone thinking of him as just a 'memory' (Oasis fans may remember a similar story in the fan-speaking 'Talk Tonite'). 'In The Heat Of The Moment' has the narrator surrounded by 'lightning and thunder' protected only by 'you at my side'. 'The Girl With X-Ray Eyes' features the same idea as 'Turn Up The Sun' and 'If I Had A Gun', a love story with a sadder ending this time ('She shot me to the sun, like a bullet from a gun'). 'Lock All The Doors' has Noel's narrator 'lost and lonely on the shore' before being saved by a 'girl with a star-shaped tambourine'; though I'm tempted to see this as Liam its more likely Noel's returning to 'Talk Tonite's idea of fans, perhaps merging his old flame with second wife Sara McDonald (the pair married in 2011, shortly before 'High Flying Birds' came out). 'The Dying Of The Light' has Noel 'running for the mountain' he's been trying to climb his whole life, only to find it further and further out of his grasp (come on Noel, the album's not that bad!) 'The Right Stuff' takes the opposite tack: an angel visits promising wealth but Noel stays behind, with his frayed jeans and his frayed life, because he and his missus are made of the 'right stuff'. 'While The Song Remains The Same' is largely a happier song too and yet still features the narrator 'lost... miles from home' searching for the 'sun' to shine through the 'rain'. 'The Mexican' is a mock-'preachy' sort of a song, trying to tell the world what it 'needs' and thinks of the world in general as 'raining on the inside, lost in a fog'. 'You Know We Can't Go Back' is the one reference to the past (well, other than a brief 'chasing yesterdays' in 'The Song...') and cites not the weather this time but that other old Gallagher favourites the stars for guidance and comfort, a grumpier companion to 'Stop Crying Your Heart Out'. Finally 'Ballad Of The Mighty I' tries to wrap the themes of the record together, with the narrator this time reaching the end of his long tiring journey 'to the end of the world' , realising that the most important venue of all is 'right outside your window'. A vow of devotion, this song promises to be there 'come heat or rain' and leaves Noel 'waiting' for the next chapter - whatever that might be. Hopefully there'll be a rainbow of some sort after all that changeable weather!
Overall, then, is this record any good? Well, not yet, or at least only in bits, and had that first solo album been skipped altogether I'd still have considered this often wet album a comedown from what Noel was doing in Oasis. The good news is though that its only a bit wet, not sodden like that first record, and I'm far more hopeful about Noel being able to get back to where he once belonged sometimes in the future'; I just hope that others feel that too and we can come back from this curious blind alley we've flown down recently that left Noel sounding dangerous close to becoming like everyone else. There was a laughable interview recently, with the usual good humour of the Gallagher brothers, where Noel genuinely tried to pass his first record off as being as 'important' as 'Definitely Maybe' and 'Morning Glory' before showing perhaps something of his real self when he admitted that he didn't know where this album 'stood up' to the others because it was so 'different'. In truth I'm not sure either: early indications (and I'm writing this review the week the CD came out even though I'm a few posts ahead of myself as usual, so not many are in yet) are that people like and admire it without quite the same lavish devotion spent on the first album. That sounds about right to me - certainly more right than the 'born again' sales and reviews that greeted the last atrocity; hopefully from here onwards the way forward for the High Flying Birds is up and onwards!
'Riverman' has a slinky groove and already the ghostly air of the album's other jazzy style songs. While still repetitive, there's something to get excited about in the lyric at last as the narrator walks around the world after an argument and pauses to hear what his lover (or possibly soon to be ex-lover) has to say next, 'cause heavy in the air are the words she left hanging'. In contrast with the angst and agony he's been feeling since their last argument she acts as if she can barely remember who he is - a 'memory faded' that 'slipped away again'. She doesn't even invite him inside to what presumably is the family house, leaving him outside to wait in the rain, longing for a rainbow that never comes to put an end to all this watery onslaught. Together with the spooky manner of the opening (which sounds like the guitar riff from 'Wonderwall' being played in a minor key - something famously the elder Gallagher refused to use in his early work as it was too 'unhappy'), this track reads like a sequel to the sighing frustration of 'Where Did It All Go Wrong?' As the music unravels, though, it quickly turns into another of those Gallagher epics that little bit by little bit reaches out for hope and finds it in the form of a joyous blistering guitar solo that's one of Noel's best of recent years. As composition this is already light years ahead of the 'new' songs from 'High Flying Birds' and bordering close to the excellence of 'Stop All The Clocks', the re-made Oasis 1990s outtake on that album. However, that guitar solo and a brief mournful sax part aside, the performance really lets the song down. The musicians never sound as if they're playing in the same room and are all just chugging about in their own separate ways. Even Noel's vocal is too delicate, too soft for the world opening up for him here. So far I've not really missed Liam's presence on Noel's songs but this sounds like one he'd have really got his teeth into and snarled ('elec-tre-ofaaaaaahs the storm!') Still, all in all this is promising.
'Drop me into the gap!' Noel orders his engineer at the start of 'In The Heat Of The Moment', an apt line as it will turn out as this is another song about looking to the future and papering over the cracks in the present. The single catchiest solo song Noel has written so far, bordering on manic ('Nah nah nah nah!' chatters the chorus of mocking multiple Noels, so different to the other times Oasis have used the famous coda of Hey Jude as per 'I'm Outta Time' and 'Love Like A Bomb', this time not so much with the weight of the world on its shoulders so much as guilt) this track does the typical Noel trick of old of building up layer by layer from a serious track to a singalong. For all the catchy surroundings, though, its the lyrics that make this one with more thought gone into them than most. Noel's reaching out to someone he used to be close to whose going through tough times, telling us that once they 'touched the face of God' together but now 'you have a rope around your neck'. Noel is still in distant contact, 'talking to him on the telephone' but his misguided former partner is still convinced he's a 'Rolling Stone' even though his audience have upped and left. Is this song about Liam and Beady Eye by any chance, dead in the water after their second record while this album was being written? (Till now most of the references have been left to Liam: 'Did you shoot your gun, get your number one?' from the wittily titled 'Don't Brother Me' plus what we think is going on in 'Three Ring Circus' where 'Noel's tent only has a star of one). What's interesting is that this reference comes halfway between the digs and the genuine friendly gestures of some Beady Eye tracks (mostly peacemaker Andy Bell's), not quite crowing but not exactly sympathetic either: it is what it is, with Noel always sure things would turn out that way, but Noel cares too much to let his brother fall too far from grace and worries about him, even though according to most reports they never meet and rarely speak to each other. Huh, families, eh?! There's even a hint at a reunion ('The more you need it, the more you see it, the more you'll be by my side' although both halves are still adamant it won't happen (it is a bit too soon I think - the world still hasn't quite realised how much it misses Oasis yet, but give it another few years of Justin Bieber and co and it might). A fascinating song then, with much more happening than I assumed at first with that pure Eurovision power pop chorus, but Noel handles the situation well, teasing us with that catchy chorus several times before finally plunging us headfirst into it. Only another slightly uninviting performance that yet again Liam would have done better lets the song down. Presumably this is the reason why, at the time of writing, this sensible choice as the album's first single is languishing at a mere #26 in the UK charts when it really deserves to thrash all the singles released from 'High Flying Birds'.
'The Girl With X-Ray Eyes' isn't too bad either, it just sounds naggingly familiar somehow, with some cascading 'Strawberry Fields' style mellotron, a walking pace tempo and an idea and melody lifted wholesale mostly from Jefferson Starship until the end of each line where the 'i-e-ise' hiccup is pure Buddy Holly. By now, too, the songs have followed a pattern that desperately needs to be broken but Noel is back using his favourite template again, the song rising and falling piecemeal until we finally get to a delayed chorus. As a result this song is more successful when I hear it singly, nestled amongst other AAA gems on my mp3 player's 'randometer', than it does as track three on this album. While the melody gets boring quickly anyway, as per the first album, there's another good lyrics going on here with Noel once more unusually passive during the course of the song. This time it's 'him' in freefall, quoting an old Oasis B-side as he's 'going nowhere...down a hill' and the fact worries him, leaving him 'shaking like a leaf'. However there's a girl with 'X-Ray Eyes' who sees through his 'disguise' and follows all the 'clues' he's left, seeing beneath the false bravado and sending words of comfort in his hour of needs, bucking up his confidence to take on the mad world alone while the vulturous mellotron and a scary 'Magical Mystery Tour' style guitar part squeaks alongside him. She sounds very much like the fan in 'Talk Tonight' who gave Noel the faith to carry on with Oasis during one of their earliest and nastiest breakups, seeing every layer and promise in the songs that Noel confesses he thought no one else would get. This could even be a memory of those same events, the pair talking long into the night and 'swallowing all space and time' because she has to be somewhere else the next day ('In the morning she was gone'). However her work was done - the narrator feels much happier about things and finds new inner strength, Noel's best vocal on the album building in confidence with each passing verse until fading out on a far more comforting final mellotron note that sounds like the taming of a wild beast. This lyric isn't anywhere near to being as inspired or as heartfelt as 'Talk Tonight', one of my favourite Oasis pieces (which is what suggests to me it might be a memory rather than a second encounter) but still has its moments including the best couplet on the album: 'Life, it stretches on for miles - the truth is on your stereo' (hmm that might have to become a new website banner!)
'Lock All The Doors', though, is a pointless remake of those huffing and puffing Oasis rockers of old, performed by a band who don't really have the drive or hunger that made these early pieces so enjoyable (huh and Noel was being rude about Beady Eye trying to sound like 'Beatles and Stones'!) At least the lyrics start well, with another mysterious girl with a 'star shaped tambourine' 'prettiest girl I'd seen' standing lonely on the shoreline staring at him, wondering what went wrong (Liam? The 'Talk Tonight' girl? Someone we haven't met yet? A figment of his imagination? I'm still tempted by the former, as unlikely as that sounds, thanks to this tracks' opening haunting mellotron riff playing exactly the same note as Liam's 'Born On A Different Cloud', a song we supposed on this site to be 'about' Noel, as if a compliment is being repaid thirteen years on). However the chorus is awful, an irritating wannabe pop song shout of 'Lock all the doors! Maybe they'll never find us!...Get down on the floor!' that makes no sense in the context of the song. We never hear who the narrator is hiding from, who he's hiding with (the mysterious girl was still left on the shore last time we met her) or what the narrator 'could be sure, like never before, this time' of. Is this Noel hiding from his brother? (it sounds like something an elder brother would do to a younger sibling, denying his existence and blocking him out while 'still feeling you under my skin'). Is it an ex looming from the surfaces of his memory while he leaps into his barricaded family home for comfort? ('We might never live to meet again!' he cries, as if fearing the danger outside). Alas what might have been an interesting song is a verse away from making sense and the performance isn't interesting enough to make you want to care anyway. Even so, as much as I unlikely this song, at least it doesn't suffer from the woeful pretentiousness of the 'High Flying Birds' album - as opposed to delightful pretentiousness as per some of our wordy AAA favourites including some Oasis classics (D'yer Know What I Mean?' may have one of the most pretentious lyrics of them all, but it still makes perfect sense because we do in fact 'know what yer meant'. Pretentious, moi?)
'The Dying Of The Light' is an interesting sequel to 'Stop The Clocks' that again worries about death and what changes the narrator may see ('But if I'm already dead how will I know?'), nowhere near as powerful and far more glossy but a welcome return to a subject big enough to be explored by both these songs and the equally excellent 'Masterplan'. Noel worries about all the paths he missed, that he should have crossed but didn't and in another classic album couplet argues that 'I tried my best to get there but I couldn't afford the bus fare' - that things got big and out of hand so quickly it robbed him of the momentum he needed to get to his wanted destination under his own steam. It's the kind of thing he worried about on 'Shoulders Of Giants' with the sighing despair of 'Sunday Morning Call' and 'Where Did IT All Go Wrong?' with a similar nagging mellotron part to both that chimes away like a bell, going 'ding ding ding' to remind the narrator that time is running out. However this isn't an unhappy song: the narrator's desire to get 'there' at all expense ('There was no time for getting old when I was young') still rages within him, but it's been tempered by other goals, by delightful sideways sojourns that he never expected when he was young. Now that he knows what love truly is, and has a family, the narrator can finally face 'the dying of the light' with a modicum of peace, realising that will it might not be 'the' dream at least 'a' dream special to him came true. Alas another truly exceptional lyric is let down by a melody that's simply unworthy of it, doddering around from A to B which may be thematically apt but doesn't have that wider sense of 'journey' and realisation that a song like this needs. The performance too is awful: this isn't a band that understands this song at all and are simply playing all the notes, without the feelings of emptiness, longing and eventual hope that ought to be there. Oasis in either classic line-up would have picked up all this up by osmosis, without any words needing to be spoken. With tracks like this, it doesn't matter how clever the driver is or how excellent the 'map' he's drawn is if the car he's trying to get the mountain in is an old jalopy with a clapped out motor.
Thankfully everything comes together on 'The Right Stuff', the last of the album's classic tracks and perhaps the highest moment. The High Flying Birds sound strangely 'right' playing jazz in a way that they never do playing rock or pop: brothers Paul and Jeremy Stacey lock into a groove on bass and drums that's haunting and hypnotic, especially wrapped around a mellotron (probably played by Noel - there's no guitar here which must be a first!) Jim Hunt's delightful sax playing and best of all Joy Rose's backing vocals, which wrap their way round Noel's sleepy lead as if dragging him on. There aren't many lyrics on this track, but it doesn't need them, the short haiku like phrases saying all they need to say very quickly. An 'angel' turns up with an offer (we don't find out what for - possibly it's for an Oasis reunion) but Noel's narrator quickly sees them for the 'devil' they are and rather than hand over his 'soul' (a major thing in Oasis songs, from 'Cast No Shadow' on down where it tends to refer to 'personality') he sends the angel packing 'because you and I got the right stuff'. A rare song of confidence on an album that runs low on it, the realisation that Noel still has the power to decide his own future has a delightful effect upon him, causing his sub-conscious to pierce through the song's hazy dreamscape with one of his best middle eights in years. 'When your heart gets shattered and your jeans get frayed and you change the morning at the end of the day!...' he yells, venting all the problems of the past few years without the band as a comfort blanket (trapped by homelife and keeping 'regular' hours, aging - Noel's talked a lot recently about approaching 50 and fearing losing his hair ion particular - and losing not just a band and way of life but a 'real' brother and two 'honorary' brothers) and yet finding that, despite all that, he'd never trade his current life for a second: he's happily married, loves his home life over life on the road and knows he's on to a good thing. The song sounds like it too, with all the 'danger' that Noel used to feature in his writing regularly in the early Oasis years but which hasn't been heard for ever such a long time to the fore again (2002 or 2005 depending on whether you consider 'The Importance Of Being Idle' as a breakthrough song or a rip-off from a different eras of The Kinks for a change). Another stunning guitar solo, haunting and yet brimming with confidence, shows just how much this song 'means' to Noel and having a band 'in tune' with his ideas for once brings out easily the best performance of his solo career so far, pushing him on to new heights. With this track Noel had indeed found the ';right stuff' - let's hope there's a lot more songs like this one on the next run of albums! (It might be worth mentioning the abandoned 'Amorphous Androgynous' remix album here - planned to fill the gap between albums but abandoned late in the day because it 'wasn't working', this project would have seen 'High Flying Birds' re-styled in a form approaching this, elongated and moody; interestingly that very team of remixers get a credit on this album but not for any specific track - though I'm almost certain it's this one they worked on).
'While The Song Remains The Same' is a return to the old days and a song that could easily have graced any Oasis album of their career. Unfortunately its one of those plodding repetitive Noel tracks that almost always turned out to be the worst ones - the tracks written simply to 'sound' like Oasis and give the fanbase something to boogie to between experiments rather than with any great design. The usual clumsy Noel lyrics are out in force on this one - though to be fair it's for the first time across the album - as he sings a bunch of jumbled up phrases about 'fireflies on an empty road' 'a place where the sun shines through the rain' 'taking you back where I was born' and 'finding pleasure in the pain'. All we're missing is a 'meeting with my maker' and something about wanting to live forever and we'd have the whole set in our patent pending AAA game of 'Noel Gallagher Bingo' (available in no good toy stores and a few bad ones). The melody too sounds like lots of old favourites stuck inside a blender: the 'on and on and on' chorus recalls 'Hello', there's a touch of 'Don't Look Back In Anger' about the melody and a drum shuffle straight from 'Love Like A Bomb' (admittedly a 'Liam' song but one based around getting Zak Starkey to play a 'typical' Alan White drum part). Even Noel's guitar solo sounds second-hand in this one. A bit of a lapse.
'The Mexican' has a lot of the old clichés too: crowds singing about 'revolution' while lots of young hippies take drugs. However at this one sounds good, with a nice purr between the guitar and bass and some of the best drumming on the album as well as more backing vocals, this time from Vula Malinga which again are highly impressive (who'd have thought Noel's voice would have gone so well with female vocals an octave higher after so many years hearing him singing in fourths or fifths above his brother's snarl?) The guitar burst is also genuinely thrilling in an Oasis style way. So why don't we consider this song one of the better tracks on the album? Well, the lyrics are a bit mean. This track is basically a put down of hip young wannabes trying to do everything Oasis once did. Nothing wrong in that as such, but rather than warn them about the traps Noel fell into himself (drugs, excess, believing your own press, doubts and insecurities) he spends most of the song seemingly laughing - or at least that's what the 'wah wah wah wah' chorus sounds like to me, an ungenerous unsettling chortling noise. Noel sounds as if he's laughing at his fans a bit too, especially those who stills party like it's 1995 and haven't grown up yet - perhaps missing the point that after turning thirty in 1997 when his drug-taking was at its peak he probably has less right to laugh at teenage posers with bad habits than most. Noel's admitted that this song was a last minute extra he didn't know was going to make the album till the last minute but kept in to 'lighten the mood'. In truth, only the boogieing power pop riff lightens the mood - the lyrics about people too young and stupid to realise they're dicing with death doesn't lighten the mood at all but is instead uncharitable and unbecoming of a writer whose talent has rarely if ever been used to put people 'down' before now (interviews yes, songs no): Noel might not want to be the 'father figure' but surely a song about the dangers a la the glorious Oasis B-side 'Cigarettes In Hell' is a much better way of putting the message across than a laughing 'wah wah wah wah wah'. The equation between Mexicans and drug taking is also unworthy of him (for the record this song could be set anywhere and there's no real mention even of smuggling drugs across a border as the song implies; what's wrong with naming this track after the chorus 'lost in a fog' which nicely sums up coke-driven confusion and white clouds?)
'You Know We Can't Go Back' isn't as bad, but isn't exactly special either. It's another Oasis style pop-rocker that sounds naggingly familiar and doesn't come close to the dangers of the best of the album songs and features another truly awful performance, with some questionable clattering drums that make Tony McCarroll sound like Keith Moon, but a strong tune and a pleasing Noel lead vocal will make this a winner as a single if the band get as far as releasing a third. Interestingly the lyrics again start off miserable and sad, with Noel unusually insecure, waking up in 'silence' for the first time - the music having deserted him - and calling to himself that actually 'it's alright'. Has Noel been suffering from writer's block? The four year gap and this song's lyrics certainly suggest it, while the fact that in total Noel has released only 24 new songs (and four re-workings of old ones) in seven years is far below his 'old' workrate (to be fair he's also been busy as a husband and father, something guaranteed to slow creativity down as many previous AAA bands have proved). The 'yes I'll find you' chorus is particularly saddening, without the many layers the young and hungry Gallagher would have given the song. After hearing this and the comments made about his own writing Ed Sheeran must be giggling his socks off!
The album tries to go back to what worked so well on the first half with another bluesy beaty hypnotic epic closer but 'The Ballad Of The Mighty I' doesn't quite come together somehow. Once again the performance is sloppy, even with special guest Johnny Marr adding a touch of characteristic Smiths style guitar grunt, while Noel's shrill vocal is tough to interpret. Not that the lyrics are that great when you do, with what could have been an interesting song gets lost in there somewhere, turning into another mush about following stars as he 'strikes up the band for one last time'. The song seems to be a return to the scene of first track 'Riverman' but where that track tried something a bit different, waiting anxiously in the rain for an answer that might never come, this song's affirmative 'yes' is just more lazy songwriting as Noel touches on all the 'optimistic' songs he's ever written without ever sounding as if he believes it, promising to walk the ends of the Earth again in joy. The music does the normal twist of reaching from the depths of despair to greatness via tremendous build - but then does nothing with it, teasing us over and over before finally hitting one of the most anti-climatic choruses of Noel's career ('Ahhhh'll faaaahnd yoooooo! Yes I'll faaaahnd yooo!') that once again demonstrates that Oasis were at their worst when confusing Slade's simple stupidity for The Beatles' brightness and treating both the same. There's even the return of the dreaded pretentious song titles AKA what the hell was going on during the first LP, which is a shame (is this song in fact an outtake from that LP? It sounds more like 'High Flying Birds' to me, clunky and unfinished, as if several promising pieces of a song have been stapled together at random). What a shame that, after such a promising start, things come undone so quickly and so badly across the second half of this album.
Ah well, at least the first half is still there, with four songs that are deeper and stranger and better than I feared Noel; might ever be again after the hopelessness of the first LP. Any album that adds new styles and does them well to an album that doesn't forget the glories of the past is an album to treasure and had the core quartet from this album come out as an EP rather than padded out as an album I'd be the first Oasis fan out there with my flag flying saying that Noel G's done it again for the first time in decades. Once again I curse the fact that Oasis are no more, simply because this half of an album added to the Beady Eye half on album might have been the best thing the band had ever made - but then again given what was going on in the first album would Noel have even realised what the best half of this album was anymore? (Would we just have had all the songs that sound most like 'AKA What A Life?') Would Beady Eye? (most of the best tracks from their second record were written during the making of the first and would have made it an even stronger LP). Only time will tell is this is a 'real' stepping stone back to greatness the way that 'High Flying Birds' was treated as but fell woefully short of or whether Noel again listens to all the publicity and can get away with recycling Oasis songs again for the next time. I hope though that the jazzier tracks from this album aren't a cul-de-sac and instead open the doors towards what could be a brilliant future with Noel's pull on modern music as strong as it ever was. Based on the best of this album, where things finally slide into place, that third album could well be a treat.