Monday 4 February 2013

Oasis "Heathen Chemistry" (2002)

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The Hindu Times/Force Of Nature/Hung In A Bad Place/Stop Crying Your Heart Out/Songbird/Little By Little/A Quick Peep/(Probably) All In The Mind/She Is Love/Born On A Different Cloud/Better Man/(Unlisted Bonus Track: ‘The Cage’)

Oasis were on the verge of splitting when they made this album. OK, so that’s hardly groundbreaking news – I could have written that sentence at the start of every Oasis album review (and every Kinks and most Pink Floyd reviews come to that), but it’s especially poignant on ‘Heathen Chemistry’ because it’s the first time that both Liam and Noel sing about the dream being over and sound like they mean it. Fans of Oasis’ huffing and puffing bluster and swagger will find much to love on this album (‘Hindu Times’ is one of their most overlooked rock gems; ‘She Is Love’ one of their better attempts at writing a catchy single, even if it only ever charted as the B-side of ‘Songbird’), but what comes across most is tension, loss, nostalgia and – most surprisingly of all – fragility. Oasis had been going eight years as a recording band by the time this album was made and had somehow overcome the upheaval of 1999 that saw two founding members leaving the band in Bonehead and Guigsy, a fact that would have shaken many a lesser band (with several more upsets to come; this is the last album with the band’s best drummer Alan White). In Beatles terms, it’s their White Album, a hodge podge of differing sounds and styles (written by four-fifths of the band for the first time ever) all stuck together with a slightly melancholy, slightly crazed air despite containing several upbeat moments (by this same hypothesis this makes ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ Oasis’ unexpected ‘Abbey Road’ rising from the ashes at the last minute and ‘Dig Out Your Soul’ their troubled ‘Let It Be’.

Just as Beatles fans mainly argue about the merits of ‘Revolver and ‘Sgt Pepper’ (with occasional plaudits for ‘Abbey Road’, so most Oasis fans argue over ‘Definitely Maybe’ and ‘Morning Glory’ with the odd vote for ‘Truth’. I can’t argue with any of that (‘Definitely Maybe’ remains one of music’s greatest debut albums and ‘Morning Glory’ one of music’s greatest ever follow-ups, while ‘Truth’ is in many ways the most Oasisy sounding record just as ‘Road’ was the most Beatlesy) but I’ve always had a soft spot for the sprawling, endless canvas that’s the Beatles White Album – the first Beatles album where four distinct voices are heard working on the same project - and I hold this album equally dear too. Not every track is first-class, but by including everything (safe and scary all together on the same plate) we get much more sense of what Oasis stand for than normal.

On the surface things don’t look that good: Gem and Andy Bell may have written for their ‘other’ bands but never Oasis Before (this is only their second album with the band after ‘Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants’) and Liam has only had one Oasis album track to his credit before (the much maligned, probably unfairly, ‘Little James’). On this album the three of them (the ‘Beady Eye’ axis as we can call them nowadays) come up with five of the album’s eleven songs between them. Noel may talk nowadays about how a drug-induced stupor overcame his writing circa ‘Be Here Now’ and ‘Giants’ (part of which were made up from ‘old songs’) but I’d be more willing to place his creative haze to this period, the time when Noel, now 35 and having done everything he ever dreamed of with Oasis and more, begins to step away from the band as the be all and end all of life. There was, in fact, a very revealing interview Noel made at the time of the album’s release where an interviewer put to the former chief songwriter that he was being generous in letting so many of his band members take control. His reply was priceless and revealing all at the same time (‘I’m in a band love...personally I think they should have got their fingers out a lot earlier and started writing years ago)Yet the surprising thing is that the ‘new’ writers are coming up with much more traditional sounding songs than Noel is (‘Hindu Times’ aside) and they effectively take the ‘weight’ of having to come up with ‘typical’ Oasis songs off his shoulders (doing so with remarkable style for the most part: Liam’s ‘Songbird’ and ‘Born On A Different Cloud’ are respectively the light and fluffy and dark and hypnotic sides of the Oasis sound to a tee and among the best songs on the album). Noel, meanwhile, has new ideas to stretch the band’s sound and cobbles together two of his career best songs in the hauntingly beautiful ‘Stop Crying Your Eyes Out’ and the surprisingly sinister ‘Little By Little’. Was he, perhaps, already planning a solo album this early on and was only persuaded to rejoin the band at the last minute? Or did he see the end coming this early on? Either way, the tension between’s Noel’s future gazing and the others’ retro return makes for an interesting album, where only a couple of bits of ‘filler’ fluff stop this album approaching their very best work.

Ah yes, ‘Little By Little’. If ever there was a song that cried out for relief then, well, actually it’s ‘Talk Tonight’ the fed-up Oasis B-side from 1995 (barely 18 months into the Oasis journey) that found Noel Gallagher pouring his heart out to a fan about having to leave the group only for her to talk him back into it. But ‘Little By Little’ is an even more desperate and agonised song than ‘Talk Tonight’, Noel asking himself why the band can’t get it together and work as a unit, decrying some nameless person for not pulling their weight despite ‘giving you everything you ever dreamed of’ (no guessing that Noel’s at least partly referring to his brother there) and asking ‘why am I really here?’ - not just in an existential sense, but in a band sense. ‘Force Of Nature’, with its talk of a ‘bird released’ (was Noel already planning the ‘High Flying Birds’?) is another key song in the band’s development, Noel’s narrator trying to fly away to find himself rooted to the ground, screaming ‘It’s all over! The sun’s going down on the days of your easy life!’ Just look at the blurry album cover too – is it any coincidence that Noel (hidden away at the rear of the shot) has his back to us? Or that in the band photos inside the glossy booklet he has his eyes cast down, refusing to meet our eye? Noel could in fact have walked away from the band and very nearly did (the brothers came to more blows than normal), with Liam allegedly dragging his feet over the songs and adding his vocals, causing the final recording and mixing for this album to take place a full year after the last ‘backing track’ session was put together (to be fair to Liam, he thought only a year after the last record would have been ‘too soon’). Things got worse when copies of the complete album leaked on the internet a full three months before release by bootleggers tired of waiting for the album to appear (the first time this really happened to a mainstream act and certainly the first time it happens to an AAA member; it won’t be the last...) The band try to end things on a positive note with Liam’s ‘Better Man’ (a song that might or might not have been Liam’s response to his brother’s dark mood) but even then they can’t escape the reality of their situation. The album really ends on a mysterious instrumental (untitled on the album but referred to as ‘The Cage’ by Oasis themselves) that suddenly cuts in about half an hour after the last note of ‘Better Man’. Anguished, haunting and sombre, it’s the most melancholy Oasis have been, like a requiem for a career they think is ending (it’s their equivalent of The White Album’s slightly tongue-in-cheek ‘Goodnight’).

‘Heathen Chemistry’ indeed (the title was originally a logo on a T-shirt spotted by Noel on a holiday in Ibiza); however as is often the case with AAA albums created in time of adversity and tension (‘Band On The Run’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ ‘Wish You Were Here’ ‘The White Album’ again) all that negative feeling ends up infusing this album with a real danger and excitement missing from at least the past couple of Oasis albums. It’s not for nothing that this album starts with the words ‘I get up when I’m down’ on opening song and lead single ‘The Hindu Times’, a hymn to music that’s a clear parallel to ‘Rock and Roll Star’ (opening track on debut ‘Definitely Maybe’) and suggesting that for all the bad times music will always see this band through. Of course, we know now in 2013 that this is a bit of a false dawn (the band will split four years and two albums later, apparently for good – or at any rate for seven years and counting), but that doesn’t take away from the thrill of that opening surge of power, the Oasis template of old sizzling with more power than ever because we know what hard times the band have been through to come up with it. Throughout the rest of the album the band seem to be on a knife-edge throughout, their limited time together on the road and the bitchiness in the studio leading to backing tracks that are simpler than at any time since their debut record and rawer and looser, the sound of a band who still don’t quite know each other yet trying to sound like the effortless togetherness of the first line-up, who’d been together some years before they ever recorded a note in a proper studio.

Yes there are times when the band have gone onto auto-pilot, but at the same time there are songs where on first hearing you genuinely don’t know where the album’s going to turn next: rock, ballads and pop we’re used to, but psychedelia? Prog rock? Blues? Punk? The band even invent a new genre on the eerie ‘Born On A Different Cloud’, the highlight of an album filled with more great moments than most. So why isn’t this album better known? Well, it can’t be because of sales (‘Heathen Chemistry’ would have been the band’s best seller after ‘Morning Glory’ had ‘Truth’ not pipped it three years later) and it’s not because of lack of airplay (Oasis are well known for releasing a lot of singles from their albums, but amazingly ‘Heathen Chemistry’ is the only Oasis album where all four of them went into the top three of the UK charts; other people like Michael Jackson and *shudder* the Spice Girls have done that too but my reckoning Oasis are the first ‘serious’ rock act to have achieved this since Wings and ‘Band On The Run’ in 1973). I think the reason this album gets forgotten so often is because it’s so so sad; since 1994 Oasis had been the band you turned to when you were in a great mood, needing picking up or wanted to feel that your generation was ‘special’; a bit of angst on ‘Be Here Now’ and ‘Giants’ not-withstanding this is the first Oasis album that leaves you emotionally drained after listening rather than exuberant, with the ‘happier’ songs merely stepping stones between the more difficult, angular stuff. Like many of the best AAA records ‘Heathen Chemistry’ is a special record because it gives a real glimpse into the life of the people who were making it (happy as well as sad and angry), running the gamut of all emotion more than the other Oasis records.

As ever with Oasis, if you want to what’s really going on under the surface you look for the B-sides, the songs that only true ‘fans’ will unearth and discover. Unusually there are only two ‘proper’ ones from this period, both gorgeous, both written by Noel Gallagher and both featured on lead single ‘Hindu Times’. Unusually they both deal with the same them, bemoaning aging and becoming fake (the sort of thing that kept 60s stars awake at night during punk): ‘Getting Older’ and ‘Idler’s Dream’. The former sounds like the opposite of ‘Hindu Times’ with Noel telling us he’s fed up of his record collection and music in general, before pulling back from the picture to show that he’s really deeply disillusioned with where his life is taking him; the latter is a love song in reverse, Noel acknowledging that he should have tried harder with a relationship in the past, before acknowledging that he’s probably just saying that because ‘I don’t want to scream out loud and wake up on my own’. Even for Noel, these twin songs are highly revealing of how far his life was unravelling in this period. Add in the other period B-sides (a cover of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ and a live recording of one of Oasis’ earliest songs ‘Columbia’) and it’s clear too that at least somebody in the band is thinking about Oasis’ legacy and whether they still have a right to be there eight years after ‘Definitely Maybe’, with anything left to offer the world. As keen music scholars themselves Noel and Liam are more aware of ‘passing trends’ and ‘fads’ than most AAA men who rather ‘lucked’ into making music a career and considered it merely a valid alternative to getting a ‘proper’ job (Liam famously spent all his unemployment money in the record shop next to the Manchester job centre during his early gigs with the band, sure that he’d be a success as a singer and that he’d have to learn his craft by analysing other people’s work) and that feeling seems to infuse the making of ‘Heathen Chemistry’ for both brothers. Having recently repaired the cracks in the band with two new members they both admired they didn’t want to rest on their laurels but wanted to push into new horizons.

For new members Gem (formerly part of the band ‘Heavy Stereo’) and Andy Bell (best known for his work with Oasis sound-alikes ‘Ride’) ‘Chemistry’ was their first real input into the band’s sound (both men had worked on ‘Giants’ on a ‘wage’, rather than as part of the band and finished the album after Bonehead and Guigsy left partway through). Despite Gem being fractionally older than Noel and Andy being fractionally older than Liam (and a bit younger than Noel), the two ‘new kids’ really do bring youthful energy to the band, their sheer joy at being part of what was still the world’s greatest rock and roll group of a generation breaking up this album’s more difficult moments. Both of them write their first songs for the band and both are upbeat, closer in style to the Oasis of ‘Definitely Maybe’ than the rather weather-beaten songs the Gallaghers are writing and their enthusiasm for Oasis and all they stand for is a big part of this record’s success, offering a contrast to the ‘why am I really here?’ writings of the others. To quote from the album’s lead single ‘we get so high you can’t help but feel it’ and that enthusiasm does seep through even the most melancholy songs here. Both Gem’s and Andy’s contributions were surprisingly well received too (despite not being up to the Gallagher’s creations – until the next album at least) and this reception may well have inspired Noel at least to feel that there was still some life in the band. Ironically, zoom forward five years and it’s the way Gem and Andy tend to side with Liam in band arguments that will persuade Noel for good that the band is over.

Still, for now that’s all in the future and the present is a very rainy place indeed. Lyrical themes of disappointment and anger crop up a few times over (especially in Noel’s songs) but one key image especially is repeated so often throughout the album that it sounds like a ‘mantra’ (or maybe a musical). ‘Stars’ and other ‘heavenly bodies’ as it were have always been a useful metaphor for Noel’s writing (one of his better B-sides of this period – and love songs come to that - is the glorious ‘Heart Of A Star’, added as a ‘bonus track’ on some non-European copies of the album) and they usually signify happiness, an on-top-of-the-world feeling or simply good fortune (think ‘Champagne Supernova’). Here the stars – and other astrological entities or even simply birds flying in the sky - are featured heavily, either ‘going down’ ‘fading out’ or ‘flying away’. ‘Hindu Times’ features the chorus ‘you’re my sunshine, you’re my rain!’; ‘Force Of Nature’ features the sun ‘going down’; ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’ features the chorus line ‘all of the stars are fading away’, repeated again in ‘Little By Little’ line ‘fading like the stars we wish to be’; ‘Songbird’ ‘flies away’ and contains the odd line ‘she’s a little pilot in my mind’; ‘She Is Love’ continues the ‘bird’ imagery and ‘wings that unfold’; ‘Born On A Different Cloud’ makes it use of sky imagery clear in the title. Add in the ‘God who woke up on the wrong side of his bed’ on ‘Little By Little’ and you have the overarching message of the album: that it’s been effortless fun all this time, that Oasis were destined be as big as they were – and now it’s all equally destined to fall apart and fail, tracks in the sky that the band can’t control.

Overall, then, ‘Heathen Chemistry’ is an album with an awful lot riding on it. After two poorly received releases in ‘Be Here Now’ and ‘Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants’ (both albums better than contemporary reviews would tell you, if not quite up to the first two records ‘Definitely Maybe’ and ‘Morning Glory’) Oasis’ future depended on this record. It needed to consolidate their old sound whilst adding something new whilst balancing the old swagger with a newfound maturity. On those terms ‘Heathen Chemistry’ does rather well. ‘Little By Little’ ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’ and ‘Born On A Different Cloud’ are all valid attempts at adding a new sound to Oasis’ usual dimensions and are all three among their greatest achievements. As for fans who never want their favourite band to change, well, ‘Hindu Times’ ‘Songbird’ and ‘She Is Love’ may be Oasis by numbers but in their own way each of these songs is the equal of anything in their canon. It’s the other five songs that let the side down somewhat, but even then there’s nothing so obviously OTT and hopeless as swathes of ‘Be Here Now’ (an album where anything goes, generally stretched out to painfully long running times). ‘Heathen Chemistry’ is an album swimming with ideas and invention, little quirks of lyrics and melody that come close to the band’s best. On the one hand a little extra work - three or four superb new songs – would have made the album perfect; but then again the sessions for this album went on for so long and the album went through so many changes that perhaps too much work went into it. Either way, though, ‘Heathen Chemistry’ is an unfairly forgotten album from a band that still had a great deal to give and if it doesn’t quite come up to career highs then that’s only because Oasis had already set the bar ridiculously high during their first year together. For all its faults, this is still one of our dozen or so AAA picks from the past decade for good reason: even blistered, bruised and bloodied Oasis still sound like nobody else of their era and even whilst in the process of disintegrating sound like an unbeatable force. Many fans hated this record when it came out – some because it sounded too close to the ‘old’ sound, as if the first two albums had never happened; other fans hated it for its sadness and melancholia that sit in contrast to the optimistic anthems that litter those same two records. Time has been kind to this record though, with ‘Heathen Chemistry’ a record with more depth than usual and yet more of the Oasis sound than the records that came immediately before and after. It will never approach ‘Definitely Maybe’ or ‘Morning Glory’, but then Oasis are not a new band exploding onto the music scene anymore with a joy and abandon rock and roll hadn’t seen in two decades; considering this is now a band of people trying desperately to keep themselves together on their second line-up and finding out what their new place in the music world is eight years on it’s pretty darn good, even with a few inevitable mistakes. Well worth another listen.

‘The Hindu Times’ is a deliberate attempt to write an ‘Oasisy’ sounding song and had indeed existed for quite a while before Noel finally added lyrics to it and nominated it for the album. The title confused many people at the time, having nothing to do with the rest of the song: in actual fact it’s another slogan from a t-shirt Noel spotted, this time in a London charity shop (what is it with this album and t-shirts?!) As a result I’ve read some hilarious synopses of what the title and song represent: all its actually about is the power of music to overcome all ills and to try and capture that magical feeling when a band is flying at full power and sound ‘together’ like nothing else in life. To be honest this song is only partly successful in that: Oasis mark two are still a little wet behind the ears and this song sounded a lot better by the end of the band’s ‘Heathen Chemistry’ tour than it ever did on record, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is exactly the song Oasis needed to kick-start this phase of their career. It sounds like their old sound but increased by a factor of ten, with the stakes much higher; in the context of the album it also makes for the perfect riposte to the question Noel later asks on ‘Little By Little’ of ‘why are we really here?’ The answer, buried in the third verse, is unusually mystical by Oasis standards: ‘There’s a light that shines on me, it keeps me warm, it brings me peace’, before a chorus line that ‘God gave me soul in my rock and roll, babe’ an illuminating revelation on an album that’s dominated by characters motivated by fate and who seemingly have their lives already mapped out for them. Of course, this being Oasis, there’s a crowd pleasing censor-baiting moment too (‘I get so high I just can’t feel it!’) Not the greatest moment on the record by any means then, but the song’s riff (‘Taxman’ via the Stone Roses) is a great copycat of the sort of thing Noel had been writing eight years before and there’s a tangible excitement to this song, which doesn’t build so much as unfurl, revealing more and more of its brilliance as the song takes off.

A crossfade (unusual for Oasis, that) leads us to ‘Force Of Nature’, which is more typical of the album sound to come. Noel sings solo to a grungy gutbucket blues that seems to fly in the face of the points made on ‘The Hindu Times’. This character isn’t controlled by any higher power but he’s all the unhappier for it, staggering round life looking for sympathy and subtlety and looking for ‘release’. An emotional ‘force of nature’ who has no one to benefit from it, this narrator is at the limit of what he can take, watching ‘the sun going down on the days of your easy life’, leaving him no recourse but to pray to a power he no longer believes will save him. I’m tempted to see this song as being about the seeming end of the Oasis days; it’s not that dissimilar to the songs Noel ends up writing on both last Oasis album ‘Dig Out Your Soul’ and first solo record ‘High Flying Birds’ and the idea, long suggested in Oasis interviews and writings that the band were somehow ‘fated’ to their success seems to have inspired the frustration in this song that the narrator is watching his opportunities slide past him without any outside intervention. The rather clunky lines about outsiders ‘smoking all my stash, burning all my cash’ also sounds like a typical comment by a band on the road with managers ripping and hangers-on ripping them off (Noel should have got together with Ray Davies...) and yet this song also sounds pointed, as if Noel is singing to someone else rather than himself. The obvious target is his brother (just listen to the venom on the line ‘the sun’s going down on the days of your easy life’), which makes more sense when you read the stories behind this album (of Liam, allegedly not pulling his weight and dragging his heels, much to his workaholic brother’s chagrin). Simpler than most Oasis songs and with the slightly grizzled, frustrated tone that was becoming the norm for Noel’s vocal outings, this is an intriguing composition – again not up to the band’s best but with much to recommend it.

‘Hung In A Bad Place’ is Gem’s first Oasis song and it’s exactly the sort of thing all Oasis-copycats were writing circa 1996-97 when Oasis were riding high in the charts. Everything Oasis haters always complain about (repetitive melodies, scatterbrained lyrics, noisy guitars) aren’t generally true of 99% of their work but are true of this rather sorry song that badly needs Noel’s gifts as a songwriter to make it first class. That’s a shame because the central idea is a pretty good one, highly suitable for Oasis: the narrator has been trapped for so long he’s desperate to taste his new-found freedom and runs into life like a child in a sweet-shop, desperate to taste everything, giving the song a very rushed and energetic air that should sound a lot more exciting than it ends up becoming. It sounds to me as if Gem is recounting his own story here to some extent (something he’ll do more of once Beady Eye is formed), with the excitement of being in one of the greatest bands of all time after a whole decade of ‘nearly’ successes with his own bands (including Oasis support act ‘Heavy Stereo’) naturally leading to his thrill and zest for life in the present day. Unfortunately there are some very poor rhymes here (‘It’s hasta manana, you’re on your own banana skin feet now’ ‘I’ve been hung in a bad place, there’s been no sun on my face’). Still, Gem’s a better guitarist than he is a songwriter and his tearing guitar part – which effectively doubles Liam’s rather gruff lead vocal throughout – is the highlight of the song, playing with a skill and dexterity missing from Oasis’ sound throughout (as well as writing less note how little guitar Noel plays throughout the album).

‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’, perhaps the album’s best known song, is one of it’s shining moments. Putting the tension between him and his brother to good use, Noel turns in one of his best ever ballads, sung by Liam with Noel’s Leslie-speakered feathery vocal replying low in the mix. One of the simplest songs Noel ever wrote, it’s amongst his most effective, with a lovely reflective tune and lyrics that mirror ‘Talk Tonight’ in their urging the characters to get up and get on in life, overcoming any obstacle that comes their way. The lyrics are clearly about the state of the band, Noel writing for himself or his brother that ‘you’ll never change what’s been and done’ and repeating the mantra of the band’s ‘it’s meant to be’ mantra of their early years in the line ‘your destiny will keep you warm’. In many ways the roles are reversed: it should be elder brother Noel singing support to his brother but in true Kinks/Who fashion the voices have been switched so that the ‘writer’ gets to sing the ‘other’s role. The use of the two brothers effectively singing to each other is a magical moment, especially when rather than repeating they seem to interact (‘Don’t be scared!’ sneers Liam in the last verse, only for a defiant Noel to add ‘I’m not scared!’) Liam excels himself here, pitching his song somewhere between helpless frustration (‘Get Up! Come on!’) and sympathy (‘Try not to worry!’) on a vehicle that finally makes the most of his range and abilities, while the backing track is sublime. The very Beatlesy ‘aaaaaah!’ chorus is beautiful, far more effective than the easier task of using a professional choir, while the unique (for Oasis) blend of psychedelic mellotron and subtle, counterpoint string parts (very 1990s) is highly effective. Listen out too for the references to ‘stars’ – this is clearly about the band’s ‘stardom’ days, with a pun on ‘stars’ in the sky (driving our destiny) with our time as celebrity type ‘stars’ on Earth before the last verse turns the glare back on us and tells ‘us’ that ‘we’re all of us stars, we’re fading away...but not try not to worry’. Unfortunately, if this is a ‘message’ to us fans then it ends on a very melancholy note indeed with the band seemingly over (‘Just take what you need, and we’ll be on our way’) – was this in fact written to be the band’s ‘farewell’ single (a la ‘The Gift’ by The Jam?) Either way, this is a lovely song, much under-rated for its ability to add real emotion into what is in truth quite a simple song and make the most out of the contrasts between the Gallagher brothers. Simply beautiful.

‘Songbird’ was a surprise hit single – well a surprise to everyone except Liam who wrote it. Cuter and more melodic than expected, it’s clearly inspired by his new found love Nicola Appleton who by most accounts has brought out more of the caring and sympathetic side of Liam’s character. In Liam’s words he ‘took me shades off and had a look at the beauty in the world’, coming up with a lovely mid-60s backing track (again dominated by a retro mellotron) with some lovely gentle passing chords and some intriguing lyrics about ‘talking of better days yet to come, never felt this love for anyone!’ The rest of the band were apparently sniffy about the song (Noel claiming his brother’s idea of writing was to make up a ‘song’ about his ‘bird’) but actually the song is perfectly in keeping with Oasis’ style, with its imagery of birds ‘spreading their wings’ and ‘flying into the night’. There’s even another reference to the idea of the characters being ‘controlled’ in some way, Liam imagining the ‘songbird’ as the ‘little pilot in my mind’, steering him through the difficulties of life. It’s notable, too, that despite his image as a hell raiser and party animal Liam’s first two songs are about first his son (‘Little James’ from ‘Giants’) and now his fiancé (with a possible third song about brother Noel later on this album). Dismissed as many who missed his sweeter, sensitive side, it was nice to hear Liam get a chance to prove his critics won with this well received, heavy-selling song. The only shame is that the song is so short (at 2:08 it was one of the shortest songs to have made the UK top ten in some 20 years!)

‘Little By Little’, meanwhile, is Noel’s peak on the album, arguably the best in a long run of fine ‘bitter’ songs that date back to ‘Fade In Out’ on ‘Be Here Now’. The song tries hard to be philosophical about some loss or other (presumably the state of the band again) before real emotion finally breaks through the song and the narrator is all but overwhelmed by the real emotion of the moment. It’s a marvellous song this, perfectly poised between grief and understanding, trying to come to terms with the ups and downs of life first with the head and then with the heart. It’s hard not to hear this song as another bitter recrimination to Liam, saddened at the way a band who began with a bang seem to be ending with a whimper (‘Little by little, gave you everything you dreamed of! Little by little, the wheels of your life have slowly fallen off!’) By the second verse Noel’s philosophical stance is tongue-in-cheek, announcing that ‘the day has come and now you’ll have to accept’, only to undermine his own words with the line ‘you know I don’t mean what I just said!...’ and suggesting that Oasis are still feted to become the ‘people’s band’ against all the odds just like they were in 1994 (only the ‘God’ controlling fate has ‘woken up on the wrong side of his bed’). The key line of the song is ‘You have to give it all in your life’ and because of one thin g or another Noel for one is clearly afraid that oasis have left it too late to win their old audience back again and that he’s squandered his chances of fulfilling his potential. Noel’s vocal is tremendous here, the sound of a man breaking down bit by bit before wallowing in a delightfully destructive last note that sounds like the dying embers of a fire (‘Why am I really here?’) The song, however, takes no notice of his grief and simply keeps playing, on one of the most spectacular moments of the whole record: Alan White’s drumming mimics his sterling work on ‘Champagne Supernova;’ and recalls successes long gone, while Noel and Gem’s twin guitars with wah-wah pedals make for a wonderfully mournful, nostalgic air. One of the three absolute gems of the record, a song as good as any in the Oasis canon, with the band turning their old ‘nothing-can-get-us-down’ anthems on their head for a song about how easily things can go wrong and how hard it is to stay on top. Perhaps ironically but deservedly, this glorious song of self-doubt and worry over the band’s place in the music scene of the day ended up becoming one of their biggest hits and sounded especially wonderful in concert.
‘A Quick Peep’ is Andy Bell’s contribution to the record and, well, it’s not up to his later classics (by the band’s final days his songs are often the best on the record). A brief instrumental not quite lasting 80 seconds, its insubstantial but does at least offer good grounds for the great band Oasis were becoming, with an interplay even their early line-ups would have been proud of. The sound is unusually folky for Oasis too, sounding not unlike one of the Jack The Lad/Lindisfarne instrumentals from the early 70s (with a similarly tongue-in-cheek corny end), although Andy’s bass rumble (similar to Paul McCartney’s inventive work for The Beatles in the mid 60s) is the best thing about the song.

‘(Probably) All In The Mind’ is an unusual Noel Gallagher song and seems to have been built from the melody of ‘Within You Without You’ with the bass riff from ‘Taxman’, with the lovely harmony parts from previous Oasis song ‘Who Feels Love?’ (from ‘Giants’) as its template. While not as successful as that song, its nice to hear Oasis mining their 1960s influences again on a song about imagination, with references to lots of past Oasis songs thrown into the mix (‘Half the world’ ‘Let me take you down’ – actually a Beatles reference first and ‘I’ll Show You What You Love’ – seemingly the answer to ‘Who Feels Love?’). The song never really takes off and is a little on the light side for this comparatively ‘heavy’ album, while the vocals shared between Noel and Liam pall long before the end of the song even if its nice to hear the brothers in all-too brief harmony. However, even if the basis of the song is a little bland it does have its magical moments, firstly the ‘probably’ word before the title adding a sense of surrealism and possibility to the song (ie the world might be this wonderful; the differences between ‘its only in the mind and ‘its probably all in the mind’ are infinite). Secondly, the guitar solo that suddenly kicks in unexpectedly some two minutes in is a thing of beauty, as bold and as joyous as the bounce in the rest of the song. Thirdly, the way the song ends is a real treat, suddenly switching unannounced to a minor chord for the last few run-throughs of the song’s riff and undoing all the good and hopeful work of the past three minutes in one bass-rumbling go. Not up to the best songs on the record, but a worthy experiment at something new.

‘She Is Love’ continues with the lighter style and again wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late 60s/early 70s folk-rock LP. This is Noel’s song of romance on the album, presumably written for his new girlfriend Sara MacDonald (although if so then the song must have been mighty tight on the album’s backing track deadline of late 2001). It’s as light and fluffy as ‘Songbird’, with ‘bird’ imagery of ‘;wings unfolding’ and some lovely gospel organ playing and a flute that mimics the sound of a bird rather well. Indeed, this song is arguably even better than ‘Songbird’ although lesser known (‘Love’ came out as a double A side with ‘Little By Little’ although most radio stations preferred playing the other side) and the delight in hearing Noel sound happy and carefree again is delightful after a couple of rather heavy albums. Lyrically simple, this song has a few confusing parts (‘She is love and her ways are high and steep’ – does this mean love is hard to climb and dangerous, but with a great view?) and a rather dangerous tag line (‘I do believe her when she speaks’ – presumably meaning that the narrator never used to believe what women told him, rather out of touch with the times circa 2002), but there’s no doubting Noel’s lovely vocal which is beautifully light and fluffy. However, Miker Rowe should take the biggest bow on the song, playing both the sensitive ‘earthy’ gospel organ part and the more melodic mellotron phrases over the main tune. Indeed, presumably the rest of the band don’t appear on this song barring drummer Alan White who adds a simple rhythmic pattern (there’s no bass and the vocals are all by Noel triple-tracked, while the guitar part sounds more like Noel than Gem). Was this song i n fact recorded for a solo album and only brought back into the band for consideration on the album at the last minute when they patched up their differences? Who knows...

‘Born On A Different Cloud’ is Liam’s second song on the album and one of my all-time favourite Oasis songs. For me Oasis always ring truer when they’re singing about difficulties and upsets (the last song not withstanding) and the eerie synthesiser part (again by Mike Rowe) makes for the perfect backing on a song about a misunderstood pioneer. I still can’t work out who Lima’s singing about on this song- at first the title line is a bit of defiance, as if Liam is singing about himself as a rebellious statement; but elsewhere the song paints a picture more like his brother (in a gorgeous middle eight Liam plunges further into minor key melancholy with the line ‘Lonely soul, busy working overtime...especially when your hands are tied’ as if in apology for the difficulties he caused during the making of the LP; Noel joins in the song at this point too). Yet again Liam sings ‘you’re my son and you’re going to shine’; along with all the Beatles references (‘classless, clever and free’ – a lift from Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ and the title of another classic Lennon song ‘Borrowed Time’) I’m actually more convinced this song is about his second son ‘Lennon’. Like Paul Simon, Liam writes about the difficulties of being a teenager by taking from memories of his own youth, picturing his son ‘loaded like a gun’ (on ‘My Little Town’ Paul has his character similarly ‘twitching like the finger on the trigger of a gun’). The line ‘breaking all your mother’s pride’, meanwhile, could refer to Lennon or father Liam both (or indeed Noel). Perhaps it’s really a song about the links between generations? Whatever the origins, ‘Different Cloud’ is a superb song, Liam’s voice treated by technical innovations invented by The Beatles and George Martin sounding older and fiercer than ever before, while the hypnotic synth hook (reaching up helplessly for a pained note that ‘clashes’ with the rest of the song, only to fall back down to the ‘root’ note) is one of the cleverest passages of any Oasis recording. The shocks aren’t over yet, however: there’s a sudden agonising switch over to electric instruments on the line ‘Lonely soul’ that effectively puts even more distance between us and the unknowable lead character. Later still there are some lovely cascading ‘na na nas’ from Liam double tracked and without the trickery this time that sound both hopeful and defeated. A wonderful mood piece, ‘Different Cloud’ is different to every other song there’s ever been, despite nicking bits from lots of them and is a truly remarkable song, the turning point in Liam’s writing where he began composing songs every bit the equal of his brother’s work. For some reason many Oasis fans don’t like this song, but all I can say is they’ve got cloth ears: the best song about isolation since The Rolling Stones’ ’20,000 Light Years From Home’ (with which it shares an eerie, mellotron-dominated mood), this is Liam at his very best and a recording that actually undersells itself at six minutes.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for ‘Better Man’, Liam’s third song that rounds the album to rather unspectacular form. Arguably the weakest piece here, it’s more of a riff than a song, a character making a promise to be a ‘better man’ (is this Liam persuading brother Noel that Oasis still have a way to go? In this context the line ‘Don’t want to hurt you, just want to see what’s in your hands’ is a revealing one) before an ‘ahhhhhhh!’ chorus of swirling harmonies. Only the sudden ‘reality check’ some two minutes in (when the band suddenly move key and sound much more urgent and more determined) catches the ear and this actually sounds quite delightful when the horns kick in –it’s just a shame there isn’t a fully formed song to go with it. By the standards of the rest of the album not much thought has gone into this song, which ends up sounding like a generic rock workout from the early 70s that doesn’t really add much the band hadn’t already said in the similarly titled ‘It’s Getting Better Man!’ that rounded off ‘Be Here Now’ in similarly unsuccessful style. Oasis are well known for ending albums on odd notes (‘Married With Children’ is one of the weaker songs on ‘Definitely Maybe’) but this one is particularly poor and arguably the weakest track on an otherwise fascinating CD.

That said, ‘Better Man’ is only the last track if you read the back of the CD box. In truth, there’s a further ‘hidden’ instrumental (apparently named ‘The Cage’) not listed on the credits that makes for a much more fitting farewell. Suddenly kicking in some 33 minutes into the ‘Better Man’ track (ie after 28 or so minutes of silence), its poignant and beautiful and sounds like a musical equivalent of the defeat that’s been hovering over most of the record. Liam probably doesn’t appear (this song may have been recorded at one of the many sessions where he failed to ‘show up’) leaving the core four of Noel, Gem, Andy and Alan to finally sound like a ‘proper’ band, playing live and without overdubs for the only time on the record. Noel’s chord choices give away who probably came up with the song, while Gem’s screaming feedback-based guitar sounds like a real howl of pain, while the rhythm section hopelessly try to lift the mood of the song without success. A mellotron part adds further melancholy while the saddest group harmonies you’ve ever heard offer a ghostly howl of ‘oooh!’, as if the band is no more and what we’re hearing is the ‘ghost’. Given the context of the problems making this record, it’s a moving requiem for what might have been and indeed would have made for a much more fitting farewell than what the band eventually bided adieu with (the ironic choice of Liam’s ‘Soldier On’).

In all, then, ‘Heathen Chemistry’ is an album that doesn’t get anything like as much credit as it deserves. Few albums are as revealing and honest as this one, with several references to band break-ups, tensions and feelings of failure. Yet that’s exactly the reason why so few fans rate this album, as Oasis traditionally are meant to be arrogant, confident and optimistic. However, times change and songwriters do too and I’d rather hear a band being honest about their situation than pretending everything is fine and recycling old songs ad infinitum (who mentioned the Rolling Stones?!) ‘Heathen Chemistry’ may not reflect the times anything like as well as ‘Definitely Maybe’ or ‘Morning Glory’ and its certainly not as track-perfect as either of those two glories. Yet in its way its a better album than even those – with songs born from pain and suffering and weariness rather than the confident blast of energy of youth. Had Oasis ended here it would have been near-perfect, the logical 180 degree step from where the band began but, for better or worse, the band came together on making this album like never before and went for a further two albums. In the end the t-shirt was right and the album is aptly named; this is a group of differences, of contrasts and opposites seemingly designed for conflict, rows and suffering. Yet when they do get together and forget their differences the sound is one of chemistry indeed. A sorely under-rated album. Overall rating – 7/10.

Other Oasis/Beady Eye/High Flying Birds album (and DVD!) reviews from this site you might be interested in:

'Definitely Maybe' (1994)

'The Masterplan' (B sides compilation 1999)

'Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants' (2001)

'Definitely Maybe' (DVD soundtrack 2003)

‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ (2005)

'Dig Out Your Soul' (2008)

'Different Gear, Still Speeding' (Beady Eye 2011)

'Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds' (2011)

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