Monday, 27 November 2017
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds "Who Built The Moon?" (2017)
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “Who Built The Moon?” (2017)
Fort Knox/Holy Mountain/Keep On Reaching/It’s A Beautiful World/She Taught Me How To Fly/Be Careful What You Wish For/Black and White Sunshine/Interlude (Wednesday Part One)/If Love Is The Law/The Man Who Built The Moon/End Credits (Wednesday Part Two)
‘If you’re waiting for the rapture, the day will never come’
Hey, it wasn’t me Noel, don’t look at me like that!
I had such a good introduction to this review planned, dear readers, I really did. Something intellectual about how Noel was now an astronaut at a distance to the planet who was now trying to work out how to function as a satellite to how he used to be in Oasis, or how being on the moon is sometimes the only way to see your life on Earth properly. But then I caught Noel’s performance of some songs on Jools Holland’s interminable ‘Later…’ shows where he was backed by a girl playing a pair of scissors as a backing track to his new songs and like many fans I just can’t get over it. I mean, cut it out Noel, you’re a legend, you don’t need to have gimmicks behind you on stage. I don’t understand this new musical world Noel’s fallen into – and the fact that I’ve been left behind cuts me like a knife. I mean the music these antics inspired isn’t exactly cutting edge is it? It’s more like The Scissor Sisters! Brother Liam had fun with it, responding to an interviewer that his next gig was going ‘to blow people’s minds…I’m going to have a man on stage sharpening a pencil!’ Actually Liam changed his mind and ‘auditioned’ potato peelers at his next gig, a stunt that went down rather well, especially as he out-stared the audience with intense glare while surrounded by potato peelings. All of which only adds up to one thing: didn’t Noel learn as a musician that you weren’t supposed to play with scissors?
Alright, that’s enough cutting remarks now because the scissors is just a distraction from what’s really going on in this album – it isn’t actually very good. Or, if I put it another way, it isn’t very good if you’ve lived and breathed Oasis for two decades. Once upon a time, in 1994 to be exact, Oasis were the band who brought music back to the people, real live people playing real live instruments and making rock and roll cool again. They were aptly named, an oasis of ‘real’ music in a landscape that had forgotten how to play and Noel and his guitar were so intertwined I don’t know if I ever saw a picture of the two apart in the 1990s. Noel was also one of our most erudite ambassadors for rock and roll, someone who looked as if he would always stay true to the sheer oomph that rock and roll brought the world. But in his solo career it feels as if he’s realised that rock and roll truly is dead and buried and he’s sought to reinvent himself as the sort of musician his teenage children look up to. Which is all very well if you like that sort of thing, but there are other bands who do all that sort of thing – and to be honest they all sound the same. Be it a new band, an old band or an even older bands trying to keep in with the kids, pretty much all modern music sounds the same: the tinny drum sound, the synths that play notes rather than chords, the dodgy mixes that leave the vocals turned down low, the trance mood that means songs come without hooks, choruses or verses and good luck trying to find an instrumental break or a middle eight in any song by a ‘new’ band in the past twenty years (since Oasis stopped being cool, not coincidentally). For all I know this might be very good modern music. But its still modern music. Other bands do that stuff already and nobody is going to be listening to any of it in thirty years (apart from a few people who grew up on it and don’t know any better). To hear one of our ‘own’ giving up the only art-form that makes you live and breathe and dance and sing and rock and roll for some dodgy synths and empty droning tracks is a bit like asking Leonardo Da Vinci along to paint your garden fence: it’s a waste of your time and theirs when there are a million other people around to do that in the Yellow Pages and they could be getting on with something better. Like making actual music.
My original review, before the scissors routine, was to have started with a joke too. There have been two major new developments since Noel’s last album in 2015. One is that Noel turned outside songwriter, writing a song for the Monkees reunion album ‘Good Times’ in 2016 along with collaborator Paul Weller (though the resulting ‘Accidental Birth Of A Hipster’ doesn’t much like The Monkees, Oasis or Weller’s work at all, despite having all that history to play with – still a good song though, better than any here). Another is that Noel has healed the long-standing music press-boosted row between rivals Oasis and Blur, something which peaked in 1996 when ‘Roll With It’ came out the same week as ‘Country House’. Neither are the band’s best work – Damon Alburn was sadly right when he declared the former sounded ‘a bit too much like Status Quo’ on the radio and Oasis would have been within their rights to say that, for all their Beatle ‘influences’ down the year, none had ever been as blatant as Blur completely missing the message of Kinks song ‘A House In The Country’ and recycling it almost word for word. The whole thing got blown out of proportion, leading to fights between the ‘posh boys’ in Blur who actually went to university and thought deep thoughts and the working class kids in Oasis from Manchester who grew up in the slums (even to a posh London club, where Damon was chatting with Stephen Fry when a chair landed through the window as thrown by a drunken Liam in horror that anyone rock and roll would even be in a club). Noel and Damon have long since put their differences aside and have now started working together, on this album and Damon’s next, which in musical terms is akin to Keith Richards joining Paul McCartney’s band as a guitarist. Which is good for the idea that peace and love and forgiveness will work in music. But bad for the music itself. Damon long ago jumped ship from Britpop to the dodgy electronica of the millennium and Noel, you sense, has long been jealous of the freedom his new friend was enjoying. For suddenly, after a year when he was trying to be a wannabe Monkee, Noel has become a wannabe ‘Gorrillaz’, the ‘fake’ cartoon band Damon created as a joke which ended up outs-selling every Blur album since 1996.
Noel is one of life’s natural blaggers. He’s walked the walk and talked the talk so well on chat shows and in publicity for the album that a lot of fans have believed him, that he loves this new musical work and has never sounded so at home and isn’t it fabulous that he doesn’t have to wear a guitar round his neck anymore. He’s clearly been looking on at Damon’s success and thinking ‘I’ll have a bit of that’ and he’s hired all the right people who seem to know what they’re doing, delivering an album that I could well believe was crafted by a talented eighteen-year-old unknown in his bedroom, given a few expensive overdubs in a posh studio to beef up the sound. Of course he was going to go in a big way for guest artist Charlotte Marrionneau when he asked her to turn up with him to play on Jools Holland’s awful patronising show and she looked annoyed when he handed her a tambourine (‘I won’t play that, but I can play the scissors’ she’s meant to have said to him, although the phrase that most tickled Noel came five minutes before filming when she said ‘hang on, I’ll just go get my cape…’) Noel needs a Yoko figure and seems to have found one – like Lennon, his playful mind was always going to love this way of thinking out the box and he’s pretty good at ‘acting’ a role himself. But that happens too often across this album. To these ears at least Noel sounds hopelessly adrift and lost, a half-decent actor playing a role to sound youthful and trendy rather than someone who actually believes what he’s singing. The problem was there in his two solo albums, the best of which tended to be the retro stuff: ‘Noel G’s High Flying Birds’ only really worked on the Oasis outtakes, while sequel ‘Chasing Yesterday’ only worked on the jazz tunes Oasis once mocked. This third album, though, is the ‘Be Here Now’ of his solo years, tipped hopelessly over the top in one direction and with songs over-extended to the point where even the most interesting of them are in danger of being boring. There is, to be fair, greatness on both albums that often got overlooked on ‘Be Here Now’ and I sense there’ll be a lot more in a hundred playings’ time when I get to know this record better: already the playful pop of ‘Black and White Sunshine’ (which sounds like The Stone Roses doing disco) and the acoustic strum of ‘God Help Us All’ (which sounds like an old fashioned Oasis B-side) stand out nicely. But most of this record is one big splurge of noise which doesn’t seem to change from track to track. There’s no excitement over the brave new musical future here, just a sense that Noel’s covering up the fact that he’s forgotten how to write a decent melody.
The fact that this album was delayed, by a month, to allow the fuss over Liam’s return to rock and roll on ‘As You Were’, is interesting (this record was first announced for October, then November 9th, then delayed to the 24th). Noel’s loyal fans and friends, Paul Weller included, have spoken up over how exciting it is that the elder Gallagher is working with a whole new musical repertoire while his brother is going backwards, but that suggests loyalty to me rather than any sense that they’ve actually heard the record (hey Weller’s going deaf anyway these days – his last two albums are similarly modern and disappointing for such a rock and roller). Liam’s album was surprisingly un-Oasisy in parts, with the non-rocking acoustic songs working best. The fact that it made #1 in the album charts and won over a lot of new fans who assumed Liam was a new act (eyebrows are in this year!) proves that there is a market for music played on ‘real’ instruments though. Noel seems to have bolted down a rabbit hole he didn’t need to escape to because a full rock and roll album from the elder brother released in 2017 could have big too. We need to have proper musicians back again, people who know how to play their instruments rather than programme them. It doesn’t mean we have to go backwards, because suddenly, after twenty years of every song sounding the same, it’s ‘Who Built The Moon?’ that sounds oddly backwards and out of step with where music is heading.
Why is the album called that anyway? Noel spent most of the publicity for his last album cringing over the fact that it was called ‘Chasing Yesterday’ because he hated the title and claims someone else at the record company thought it up. I can’t wait to see who he blames for his new title because it’s one of the oddest, ugliest, ill-fitting names for an album I’ve heard for a long time. There is, you see, a frame of thought amongst conspiracy theorists that the moon was indeed built rather than formed. Scientifically, it really shouldn’t be there – of all the many solar systems we’ve mapped now, no other planet has a satellite that big next to it. Evolutionists reckon that the moon was integral to the development of life on this planet as it created what was so needed for life, with what is now increasingly looking like the strongest tide in the universe causing us to move out of our primordial soup. People (some people anyway) are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the moon wasn’t formed, but ‘parked’, while analysis of the moon landing footage reveals some really weird discrepancies that suggest that, rather than being formed out of rocks with the same make-up as our own planet, it sounds distinctly hollow. There’s a whole triple album prog rock concept work in there somewhere – and I am drying to hear Noel write something with that kind of scope one day, because he has the talent and work ethic to make one, a ‘Quadrophenia’ for the Britpop generation about growing older and growing up enough to see through the con of The Spice Girls, for instance, or he could do a Moody Blues and make a sequel to ‘Our Children’s Children’s Children’ about how the optimism over our progress in space came a cropper after deaths and mistakes and recessions.
Instead we get just another album which, if I’ve read the lyrics right (it’s not as if you can hear many of them) is all about love. Only that’s actually the album’s most interesting feature, given that Noel isn’t a writer whose ever really done ‘love’ before, preferring to write in general poetry for a specific generation or how his life either did or didn’t turn out the way he dreamed of as a kid. Noel has been married to one-time Oasis publicist, Sara McDonald, since 2000 (that’s her in the distance on the album cover) and finally has the family life he always dreamed of as an unknown aspiring wannabe in the early 1990s, without as many musical commitments to get in the way. Oasis song ‘Waiting For The Rapture’ is said to be about their meeting and with its similarly hazy quality, weird song structure and tinny drums sounds more like this album than anything else in the Oasis songbook. The title is referred to across this album more than once too, suggesting that at least one of the love songs on this album is definitively for Sara. The other songs sound like they come from a similar place too, which is lovely as that goes – there aren’t nearly enough straightforward love songs in oasis’ catalogue and most of those were written by Liam in their final days anyway. But the trouble is that Noel is so determined that he wants to sound young and trendy that the lyrics sound more like fumbling teenage love than a man with a past and a realisation of the risks when love goes wrong. Every time Noel sings about ‘stormy seas’ and how ‘there’s nothing left for me’ we’re not sure we believe him (even if ‘If Love Is The Law’ does feature the best lyric on the album, suggesting everything isn’t always that idyllic at home). It’s an easy jibe to say that musicians get fat and middle aged as they have families of their own and lose the need to make their mark they did in their younger hungrier days, but Noel was never like that – old before his time, he yearned for the family life, the domestication, the security. Even a joke like ‘Married With Children’ wasn’t really a joke, but what Noel wanted – warts and bad vibes and arguments and break-ups and all. But now he’s found it, he doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. He spends this album recounting how he met his wife, how much he loves her, how much other people ain’t got what he’s got and how much he’d hate to lose it. There’s even, on a live acoustic track hidden away near the end of the deluxe edition, a song about how much he still misses his ex, Meg Matthews (unless it’s about first girlfriend Louise again, like much of ‘Definitely Maybe’ was). The standout track by a million light years (not least because the annoying backing isn’t here, with just a guitar and piano), Noel sings this one from the heart and it’s lovely. Why oh why couldn’t the rest of the album have been more like this? Why did Noel have to hide his feelings behind a backing best described as forgettable, frequently described as ‘noisy’ and one that’s going to sound more dated than the entire Oasis back catalogue in about five years or so.
My guess is he’s working with the wrong people, who don’t ‘get’ his music the way a rock and roll backing band would. His producer David Holmes is actually only two years his junior (and thus two years older than Liam), but he’s made a name for himself working with modern acts, indeed all but inventing a whole new genre of electronica, partly on film soundtrack scores like the memorably titled ‘The Film’s Crap So Let’s Slash The Seats!’ and the ‘Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen’ series (personally I’m looking forward to ‘Ocean’s Eighty’ when they’re all OAPs and George Clooney gets lost in the crowd scenes). He’s very good at what he does and the fact that he was working with Noel at all won some extra quizzical comments in the press and back-slapping from music journalists who like their oldie acts to act young and trendy. Job done – but there’s a sense that the producer and artists don’t understand each other on a basic level. The only other musician who ‘gets’ his music is Gem, from the later Oasis line-ups, and even he’s overshadowed by the sheer noise of the synths and drums (played by Chris Sharrock of Beady Eye, incidentally, where he sounds badly miscast. Then again so does Noel’s longstanding hero, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, whose inaudible on ‘If Love Is The Law’). There are five seconds on the deluxe edition of the album that reveal everything to me. Seconds after singing his heart out on ‘Dead In The Water’ – a really committed, full-on vocal that’s dripping with sincerity and desperation – the producer asks him ‘is that it?’ ‘That’ll do won’t it?’ Noel asks, eager-to-lease and perhaps not quite understanding how good that take was. The fact that it appears only on the deluxe, rather than the straightforward edition, reveals a lot too about the attitudes of the people making this record, where production matters more than performance or songwriting. For all his bravado (because of his bravado?) and punch-ups in the press Noel has a much thinner skin than people realise and doesn’t always know what his best work is or where to go with it. He really needs someone he can rely on as his ‘mirror’, to tell him where he does well and does badly and to bring the best out of himself. I can’t help but worry that, ever since Alan McGee got sick on drug addiction and abandoned him out of necessity in 1997, that Noel has never had that direction. I’m sure some fans will like this album and its already getting stable reviews, if not stellar ones. But to these ears Holmes is not the right person and the backing band made up of session musos are not his people. Noel needs rock and roll with a few dashes of something else – covering his music up with pure noise just drowns out the melody and lyrics that are Noel’s stock in trade and leaves him sounding nervous, doing what he’s told because other people think it sounds good rather than because he believes it.
The result is an album that’s disappointing not because it’s awful, but because so much of it is so nearly good. Traditionally in their later days Oasis would hire trendy remixes to go over their latest work and make it sound different – bigger usually, more trance and dance like, more repetitive. What I’d love to hear is an ‘un-remix’ version of this set where all that huge noise and endless repetition and overdubs (there are twenty-nine musicians credited on the sleeve, with all but three of them appearing on pretty much every song) are shorn away to leave the often quite interesting songs underneath. For an album that’s built to sound big and bold and expressive, even aggressive (the horrid ‘Holy Mountain’ is Noel’s ‘demand’ that his future wife fall in love with him and is about as unromantic a depiction of a first date as you can get), you can’t help but feel that, underneath all the surface, there’s actually quite a sweet series of fragile songs in here. ‘Who Built The Moon?’ should be an album about second thoughts, whether it’s the guilty songs wondering why a marriage entering its second decade doesn’t feel the way it did when the love was new, that a career is sliding away or that somebody really did build the moon (red herring as that subject matter might be). Instead it’s an album that isn’t allowed to sound weak or feeble at all, with cries of ‘you gotta get yourself together!’ turned from a personal cry into an angry attack and where the brash and arrogant public demeanour of Noel in public has come to overshadow the vulnerability of his actual songs. I would love to know who built ‘Who Built The Moon?’ because most of the time it doesn’t sound like Noel. He’s in there, somewhere, but nowhere nearly enough. But maybe this ‘failure’ is the album he needs to really spurn him on to do what we fans know he really can do – and that on album four, just maybe, it will be ‘Here Comes The Sun’.
‘I guess some people would rather we stay in 1995. But those of us who lived through it don’t want to go back there – you want to go somewhere new’ said Noel on the eve of his album. Err, no. Absolutely nobody who ever lived through the years 1996-2017 ever said to themselves ‘yippee I’m living in a golden musical age and I hope we stay here!’ All the best albums of the intervening twenty years have harked back in some way to music from the years before. To be honest most of us who were around in 1995 weren’t going yippee either but responding ‘well, it ain’t up to 1965 or 1975 but it’s the best we’ve got and it doesn’t us too ill, it’ll kind of have to do’. Opening song ‘Fort Knox’ is good evidence as to why nobody in the distant future history of mankind will be downloading an album titled ‘The earth’s greatest hits 2002-2017’. It has a screechy synthesiser opening that’s clearly meant to invoke tension and mayhem, but just sounds like so much noise, like hearing ‘Fuckin’ In The Bushes’ from the fourth Oasis album played on a loop with a truly awful drum pattern over it. This is the debut of the mass choir of nine backing vocals, but they don’t get much more to do than some ‘hey hey hey’s. This doesn’t sound anything like Noel’s usual style, the only give away being the helicopter sound effects at the beginning and the sound effects of the ringing alarms that run like a spiky backing track through the whole thing. The official lyric seems to consist of the following: He-e-ey, He-e-ey, keep a hold on, keep a hold on, he-e-ey, he-e-y, keep on holding out, holding on, he-e-e-y, uhhhh!’ ‘Fort Knox’, of course, is about one of the world’s most impenetrable prisons. The song is aptly named because this is one of Noel’s most impenetrable tracks and a daring opening to a new work. The courage of releasing it alone has brought out raptures of ecstasy in some fans, but it’s all so mangled and directionless and pointlessly noisy to me. I would rather listen to flipping scissors!
The worst track on the album though is surely the first single ‘Holy Mountain’. Noel sings, no shouts, a lot of cringeworthy lines about how he forced his girlfriend to fall in love with him. There’s a contradiction here that you can’t force someone to love you or it isn’t love – but that isn’t the song. Instead it’s one of the noisiest five minutes of your life as Noel yells ‘she fell, she fell, right under my spell!’ and offers some of the worst lines of his career: ‘Come and be my baby doll, come and know me like the back of my hand!’ Or how about this from a later verse? ‘Do your thang on the beat of the bang, I’ll put a melody inside your head!’ Err, no you won’t Noel because there’s virtually no melody here, just a staccato rant that keeps going, like a drunk who doesn’t know when to shut up. The backing is at least slightly more interesting than the last track, with its manic Beach Boys falsetto whoops (Noel really has been spending a lot of time with Paul Weller lately hasn’t he?) and there’s some nice use of saxophones as grit and muscle, rather than the usual artificial romantic way they’re used. But everything else is all synthesisers left over from the 1980s and drumming that’s louder than everything else in the room despite being the single most boring part Chris Sharrock has played on record in his career. The fact that Noel is singing all this through a megaphone doesn’t help either. This horror is surely the worst song any member of Oasis has ever ever released, right up there with ‘Get Your High Horse Lady’ as a real ‘what the hell is going on?!?’ moment. Making this the first single from the album when it’s about as catchy as support for Donald Trump at the moment is a bold move, bordering on stupid. Oh and Noel also continues his practice of pretentious song titles, with the idea of a ‘Holy Mountain’ a far more interesting idea than anything we get in the lyrics of Noel’s ugliest, noisiest and -unfortunately given the times of sex scandals – most mysognistic song.
The album improves with ‘Keep On Reaching’, which is the closest thing to a ‘sleeper’ on the album. The rhythm guitar blushes that keep sliding in and out of a catchy synth riff by Mike Rowe adds up to a great groove and the backing singers and huge scale make more sense here than elsewhere. The song is almost Motown as people demand en masse ‘can you keep a secret?’ and Noel’s only response is to shout out his heart as he succumbs to the pressure, denouncing ‘the bogeyman’ and how ‘I’m gonna write that in a song!’ It feels as if this lyric has had a lot more time laboured on it compared to the other sketches on this album and sounds very much to me as if its Noel’s response to his brother Liam’s pokes and digs on twitter over the past few year. ‘You’ve spilled your guts but you got no one!’ spits Noel, as he keeps trying to keep the rising bile in his throat down and instead of reacting tries to reach for ‘higher ground’. This is surely Liam given lines like ‘I can reach for my old guitar, you can sing it like a monkey man’, but unlike Liam’s songs (which take aim, fires but then offer an apology and a hand of friendship, questioning where things went wrong) this is just so much shouting and doesn’t really represent the ‘higher ground’ the way kinder Liam and Beady Eye songs like ‘The Beat Goes On’ ‘For What It’s ‘Worth’ ‘Come Back To Me’ and even ‘Don’t Brother Me’ do. That’s a shame because we do get a hint at brotherly concern underneath all the shouting, hidden away towards the end of the song when Noel sees his brother’s face ‘on the cover of a magazine’ and instead of the usual Liam arrogance sees eyes that are bruised and hurt ‘and wore a face I have never seen’. Alas this ends up as pointless shouting again: ‘You spill your guts but you got none!’ Not to take sides in the Oasis battle, but I get the feeling that if nothing else Liam is being honest about his feelings, while Noel is hiding behind a smokescreen of all his ‘heavy’ friends and noise instead of singing from the heart (well, not till the bonus tracks anyway!) Noel is legendarily a song-nicker extraordinary. From The Beatles to a court-case brought by Stevie Wonder, he usually nicks from the best sources. However ‘Keep On Reaching’ steals from an unlikely source: The Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ crossed with the theme tune from Disney series ‘Duck Tales’. Seriously, go and have a listen, it’s the ‘you can’t try to understand…’ middle eight part of the former crossed with the ‘woo-oohs!’ of the latter!
‘It’s A Beautiful World’ adds some psychedelia to the sound, which is something I’ve longed for Noel to do since hearing his spot-on approximation on ‘Who Feels Love?’ (an under-rated Oasis song if ever there was one). But this song is so busy trying to sound trendy and modern that it loses all the mystical ethereal feel that it should have had, burying the main idea behind another clattering drum part and another vocal line that isn’t sung so much as it’s shouted. This is another of the better songs on the album though and has been really growing on me, especially the way Gem’s harmony vocal suddenly arrives to soar in tandem with Noel’s for a few precious verses. Had the song kept up the air of mystery there was on the verses and with the psychedelic swirling effects I could have truly loves this song: Noel is trying to sum up how love feels to him and he can’t find the words so instead embarks on metaphors: love is a ‘song’, a ‘prayer’, a ‘dream’ and in homage to ‘Eleanor Rigby’s face in a jar by the door a ‘face you’ve never seen before, that you keep with a key you’ve found’, a startling image that proves Noel’s still got it. But alas his latest Beatle fixation leads him into very rum territory indeed. Paul McCartney’s ‘Beautiful Night’ is the single worst song the ex Beatle ever wrote – its patronising, insincere and has all the charm and depth of an advertising jingle. Noel rips off practically all of it for this song’s chorus and is even more blatant about it than normal. I can forgive him ripping off ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and all the great Beatle songs out there, but does he really have to rip off the bad ones too? Things get weirder for the ‘Yoko’ moment towards the end when Charlotte Marrianneau, she of the scissors, gets to do what she really came to do and starts speaking in French over the track. It seems oddly perverse and yet somehow right to hear a cod-Yoko moment over the top of such a McCartney moment, as if Noel is out to claim that he was both Lennon and McCartney in The Beatles. But Yoko always had a reason to be there on the record, even if many fans wished she wasn’t – she always had some extra emotion to convey, be it love or terror. This passage adds nothing and translates as roughly ‘Attention ladies and gentlemen, hold on tight and say goodbye, mankind is now melting at the poles, watch out! Borders close, inhale exhale carbon monoxide’. Don’t worry Noel, Charlotte’s only looking for mankind in the snow, but the elder Gallagher is walking on very thin ice here and the result sounds patronising and false, even though the song started for a few seconds there with the most ‘real’ and ‘alive’ moment on the album.
‘She Taught Me How To Fly’ is another love song. The most Oasisy moment here, with its triple-tracked guitars and groovy rock beat, it’s hypnotically catchy and is the one song from the album that you’ll actually remember by the time it stops playing. However once again its all but ruined by an insistence on making it all sound modern – where once Noel would have really made this song rock, instead it gets a trance hypno beat makeover that makes it sound awful. The pat-a-cake drums are so loud, the synths don’t play notes so much as swash about between chords and the bass is so loud its giving me ear-ache. There’s a great song in there somewhere, but we need a mix to hear it – or perhaps a future deluxe edition with what will presumably be a typically Noel sweet and charming guitar demo attached. Once again the lyrics are clearly written in a hurry and can barely be heard anyway. For all the many fans falling over themselves to proclaim this album’s greatness, I have to say this is flimsy stuff when you look at the words away from the riff: ‘The one I love, she is divine, she’s out to blow my mind’. Also, what the hell does this ungrammatical verse even mean? ‘’Don’t matter what your name is, she around all the time, you lost your mind and your maqke-up, your money too, I don’t mind…’ I’m willing to bet that this song is about Noel’s wife Sara when he first met her, working as a publicist for the good, the bad, the famous, the unknown and the ugly, but like so many tracks on this album the idea is sound but gets mangled somewhere along the way. There’s no real story in this song, nothing really of substance, just a riff that would have worked a lot better had it been kept as an instrumental. Even in 1967, at the height of this sort of thing, a band would have hidden a lyric like that away on the B-side of their latest release, not made it the sort of lyric to accompany the big ear-catching song on the album. At least the riff is a good one though and still gives me hope if we can ever get Noel to admit defeat and go back to making ‘proper’ music again. Sigh…
At last we get a chance to catch our breath with ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ for thirty seconds at least. This latest Lennon-loving song rips off ‘Come Together’ and comes with the same slow swampy blues feel and an almost identical riff. At least the backing band are better at sounding claustrophobic and menacing than they do sounding joyous and the song comes off as another ‘Gas Panic!’, a self-deprecating song of terror and paranoia that has some interesting ideas. ‘You can play the game song, but they’ll never let you in!’ grins Noel, before he sings some wordless vocals that really sound like crying while the backing band chant in the background what sounds like some exotic voodoo curse. The song brightens up considerably with a shimmering Pink Floyd-style instrumental solo, but the rest of the backing sadly stays much the same throughout, a dull thud rather than the shimmer a song like this demands. Even so it’s easily one of the best things on the record, with a fascinating revealing lyric that, ironically, is all about the art of hiding your true self behind a barrier (‘behind walls’ in Stephen Stills parlance). ‘Never let them bear witness to the tears in your eyes’ Noel concludes, while ‘you’ve fallen like an angel. Stranded on the earth’. Oddly enough it sounds like ‘Born On A Different Cloud, the Liam song I’m still convinced was written in solidarity with his brother, as if Noel has been listening to his old records and remembering better days. It suits Noel here to sound like an alien in a mad old world he doesn’t understand – a song like that makes perfect sense of the cold austere backing which sounds nothing like Noel has ever given us before (even if I wish he’d also chosen a tune The Beatles hadn’t done before either). Noel’s smug grin, so obviously a surface smile making small talk with us and pretending that he isn’t revealing his inner thoughts, is also his best work on the album – his best in a couple of albums I would say. Our review of all three Noel solo albums now have been making the claim that he’s been ‘hiding’ something from us, suffering writer’s block as he tries to work out who he is after some personal crisis he doesn’t want to admit to – this song seems to back that up, as its surely too ‘real’ to be as ‘fake’ as much of the rest of the album. Even so, though, like much of the record it lacks the variety it needs to be a classic, something that made the best of the last album ‘Chasing Yesterdays’ so special (‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Riverman’ particularly).
‘Black and White Sunshine’ is better yet though, the anger and power and oomph of early Oasis peeking through a song that has its 1960s roots on show far more than the modern noise. Obviously it’s going to be my favourite song on the actual album, then, (with better yet on the deluxe edition) as it’s the one made for fans like me rather than people who mistake noise for music and it’s a joy to hear Noel actually connecting with his music and singing to us direct instead of behind a smokescreen. Noel is depressed, ‘the weight of the world dragging me down’, aware that he has to change leading him to the idea of ‘shedding my skin like a snake’. But what’s left behind when he does that? Noel doesn’t know, coming up with this very Pete Townshend esque song about identity and how he only feels he can be himself when he sees himself through other people’s eyes. I wondered for a while if this was another love song – it probably is, but I have a sneaking feeling he’s writing for Oasis fans here too. My guess, what with all the Britpop overtones (this song is the bounce and harmonies of ‘She’s Electric’ meeting the power and riffing of ‘Morning Glory’), is that this is Noel’s response to seeing the ‘Supersonic’ documentary on early Oasis and remembering just how great it felt to be at the peak of his powers, the most recognised and loved songwriter on the planet, uniting a generation all too briefly. ‘These are the glory days for waifs and strays’ he sings, amazed at the power he feels uniting all the lost, lonely people who ever felt like he used to in some massive movement of optimism and hope. However that was a time long past (‘Qu’est Ce Que C’est, where are they now?’ he wonders) and he doesn’t see his ‘people’ as vividly anymore now, admitting it’s been so long ‘I’ve forgotten your name’. Even so, though, he feels a power tugging him to this particular generation of Oasis fans, adding ‘you give me love – I give you praise’, before summing up the power of the Gallagher brothers with the line to Liam ‘you got the nerve – and I got the brains!’ The song is joyous, the chorus unfolding into a hopeful anthem – is this Noel’s first truly happy song since ‘She Is Love’? All the more extraordinary, then, that it’s bookended with one of the most revealing moments yet, as a weary and disillusioned Noel wonders if it’s even worth his while getting out of bed as he ‘feels the heat’ and ‘can’t get a break’ in a world that’s forgotten him. This leads to an odd conclusion with one last moment of arrogance and ego: ‘We got them crawling on their hands and knees!’ Noel gloats, before he ends up right back where he begun and its him whose crawling on his hands and knees, searching for a way. A fascinating song and the best thing on the ‘actual’ album by a zillion light years. Noel is a natural for songs like these – he needs to write them more, sticking to the generation he understands more than anybody instead of trying to appeal to a whole new one who don’t care who he is and whom he clearly doesn’t understand.
‘Interlude’ is two minutes of, well, what is it exactly? When Paul McCartney ‘pretended’ to be The Fireman and did similarly weird stuff under a pseudonym, it still somehow managed to sound like him, his alter ego fooling no one. But no one would possibly have guessed that this was a Noel Gallagher track without looking and is he even on it? Even the guitar sounds more like Gem to me. The guitars aren’t as important as the aah-ing choir the very 1980s slap-bass anyway, never mind the twinkling synths that are trying to be all calm and peaceful or the very noisy drums that are anything but. At least there’s a tune this time though and it’s a good one in a ‘Pink Floyd have forgotten to write some words again’ kind of a way, making this song far more deserving of a place on the album than the opening instrumental. In many ways its hypnotic beauty finally achieves the sort of thing Noel had been aiming for since at least ‘Heathen Chemistry’ in 2002, a sort of floaty moody piece that conveys emotion by atmosphere alone (the untitled instrumental that ends that LP is the closest in sound and scale and scope out of the whole Oasis canon). But typically for this album it all fades away after two minutes, just as it was getting interesting.
Most fans have been jumping up and down over ‘If Love Is the Law’, a weird combination of Motown, Christmas singles, Bavarian Eurovision entries and some drunken guy shouting through a megaphone on top of a rooftop. There is a great stomping hook in there, with a beat similar to ‘Lyla’ and a melody similar to ‘Live Forever’, but away from the bits that sound recycled from gems of old, what’s new is pretty ordinary. Noel is alone in a town he doesn’t know well, presumably on tour, on a lyric to a song that’s juvenile and one-dimensional compared to his brother’s ‘Chinatown’ (the definitive Oasis ‘getting lost’ song). Liam had a whole gameplan over how to get back to town and used the metaphor of a town for his career. Noel’s just getting upset that he isn’t home and venting his feelings by ranting to us. Cross the song ‘time’ rhymes with ‘crime’, there are ‘things left unsaid while lying on my bed’ and the odd central idea that ‘if love is the law then this a crime’. My guess is that he’s had a falling out with his missus, perhaps over the strain of being so far away just as their family life is getting cosy, but that as a born musician this is what Noel is meant to do – to travel the world, connecting to fans with music and touching base occasionally to stay normal and sane. That would have been a great song – Noel, the hero of a generation for his music, aware that to his family his music is what keeps him apart from them, something they can never quite share in. But we don’t get that song – we get this confused mess of metaphors instead. Noel also spends the whole song shouting, which is wearing when it’s on a bed of similarly shouty artificial synths and drums rather than actual pure guitars. Still, the second half of the album is a lot better than the first isn’t it?!
‘The Man Who Built The Moon’ is a big epic scream of a number, something akin to all the songs I love the most in the Oasis catalogue: ‘Fade-In Out’ ‘Gas Panic’ ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’ It even sounds not unlike ‘Little By Little’ in terms of melody. But alas it sounds like all those past epics without actually being as good as any of them. In terms of lyric this is another of those ‘ah, I’ll fill it in later’ songs that don’t do much except follow the song’s repetitive rhythm, another ‘It’s Getting’ Better Man!!!’ rather than another ‘Wonderwall’. Lyrically it seems to be yet another song of the day Noel met his future wife and his world changed, leading him to question all sorts of things about the universe and fate and how it’s made (although his only actual reference to the title is that the man who built it ‘arrived on a maggot horse’. Make of that what you will, because I certainly can’t). Alas this is no ‘Masterplan’ but another jumble of garbled poetry: ‘You and I, spider and the fly, we eat where the shadows fall’. Noel also comes across the song as a deeply unsavoury character, a wolf out to woo a girl against her will because he can see how important she’ll become to him – but he’s already regretting his big move the minute he makes it and is trying to get out of it. ‘Keep your eyes on the prize if you want it all!’ he urges himself, but he’s full of doubt and worry, aware that if he does accept this challenge then he will become like everyone else, sucked into the ‘rat race’ of family and small talk. Far from being celestial and other-worldly this weird song is just too earth-bound and smug to work as well as it should. As ever, though, Noel knows how to make a good stomp beat and this song’s slow icy march does have a certain something that keeps you listening, it’s just a shame that a better lyric and tune couldn’t have been placed on top.
The album then ends on ‘End Credits’, which is basically just a reprise of ‘Interlude’ (confusingly both songs are subtitled ‘Wednesday’ Parts One and Two). We’re clearly meant to think of this album as a movie, with this the moody music that plays underneath the closing commentary, the punchline to the rest of the album. Except that it just repeats an instrumental that wasn’t that interesting in the first place, albeit with added eerie ‘I Am The Walrus’ strings which work rather well. The tune sounds a little like the title track too, but that shows just shows up how much the album has run out of ideas, with this riff not good enough to hold up three songs without variation. The song is also wrong for the big finale of an album – it doesn’t so much end as kind of give up, fading away into the darkness. As bad as the other two Noel solo albums were, at least he knew how to end them – this album just comes to an abrupt halt.
Most fans surely own the ‘deluxe’ edition anyway, which is the must-have one to buy courtesy of two of the better songs that are by far the best recordings, as Noel and an acoustic guitar does so superbly what a whole thirty-odd string of session musos and a powerhouse production fails to do: move me. Both ‘Dead In The Water’ and ‘God Help Us All’ are strong songs from the heart. But if you own the basic version of this album you don’t get those: instead you get nine songs of a man shouting and no less than three instrumentals, plus maybe two songs that are kinda listenable. This is hopeless for a man of Noel’s credentials and I still can’t help but feel that he’s hiding his ‘real’ self behind something (the surface production mostly) and that we’ve only seen peeks of the ‘real’ Noel on his solo projects so far. I fear that one day we’re going to see a nervous breakdown of the ‘what was I thinking? This isn’t really me’ sort in a few years’ time when this whole trilogy will be abandoned As a bad idea. Indeed, Noel’s already doing that with his first two solo albums, which in publicity for this third one he said weren’t really ‘on it’, even though they were both greeted as his ‘best work since Morning Glory’ and blah blah blah. Noel can talk the talk like nobody else. I almost believed him in the run-up to this album as he talked about being groundbreaking and revolutionary and how he wanted to keep moving on in his career, without any need to sound like his old band to hold him back anymore. But take away those guitars and what have you got? Certainly not melody, certainly not the wit and charm of the old days and most definitely not the subtlety. Instead you have a man shouting for nearly three-quarters of an hour, some trendy modern music that comes with a best-before date of round about Christmas and a girl playing the scissors. Noel has surrounded himself with a whole new world of people who make modern music and asked them to put him at the heart of it – the problem is, he doesn’t belong there. He’s not a poetic mystical figure writing in metaphors and doing crazy things for the hell of it, he’s a realist, one of the people, who knows how to tap into the social conscious like nobody else of his era (except Belle and Sebastian, anyway). This album, though, is more about hiding from the need to write for or recognise anybody, with Noel literally as far removed from planet earth as he can be given the album title, not even writing much about himself anymore these days. Noel has talked in interviews too of how people who diss him all love John and Yoko and can’t see the hypocrisy in loving a man whose daring to be different. But that’s the problem: John, with Yoko pushing him, was genuinely trying to be different for most of the time (and he did mess up on occasion: this album is the ‘Double Fantasy’ of the Oasis catalogue). Noel sounds like every other awful band around with a casio keyboard and an amplifier; he just has a bigger budget than most that’s all. Like the third Oasis album everything is just so overblown and big and huge that its forgotten how to tell a story – of the whole album there are only two songs that have anything in them really to discuss. There’s nothing like the invention or courage of Liam’s album, made against his will because he would much rather pretend that its 1995 and he’s still part of a band and brand name, but who dug deep into his psyche and cobbled something together about how he was feeling (betrayed and confused mostly); Noel quit the group, a few Satsuma throws later, so that he could do something different. But was the risk really worth it, ending a band who still had so much potential and so much to offer for this messy noisy rambling album of nothing? Surely not. It’s hard to know how Noel feels at all on album that seems to have been designed purely as a smokescreen to hide his real self behind. The result is one small step for Noel, but a huge calamity for Oasis fans who can hear this sort of stuff made better by any amount of unworthy bands. Noel has been many things, but he’s never been quite so boring before. Who built the moon? Who cares. I care more about planet Earth and the musicians on it. There is no dark side to ‘Who Built The Moon?’ really. Matter of fact it’s all dark (and impenetrable).