Believe it or not, Noel Gallagher was humbled by the misfire that was 1997’s Be Here Now. Of course, it wasn’t just the record that brought Britain’s pop kings down to size. Britpop was really and truly over by 1997. That was the year of OK Computer, an album that raised the bar for every band in the UK, and like it or not pop meisters like Gallagher were hopelessly out of fashion. Even The Verve’s classical pilfering on Urban Hymns was more in tune with the times than Oasis’ set-on-10-on-the-amps, all-out rock anthems.
Noel Gallagher attempts to right the ship on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants by diversifying Oasis’ sound and soaking up some contemporary influences from the Beta Band to the Chemical Brothers. The result is a much darker-sounding effort and the throw-everything-into-the-mix and make-it-loud-as-you-can approach has been toned down… a bit, though not unfortunately on “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is,” an obvious Oasis single. Still, the instrumentation is broader and actual restraint has been used in many of the arrangements, where in 1997 there would have been none. And restraint doesn’t just turn up in the “orchestration,” but also in the 47-minute length of the record—a welcome relief from the over-eagerness on Be Here Now to fill every last byte of the CD with every last sound squiggling out of an amplifier on Abbey Road.
As much time was not spent on the lyrics. Just look to the lead-off single “Go Let It Out,” whose patently obvious chorus “Go let it out / Go let it in” is more of the “moon in June quality of writing Gallagher often seems only to content to lob our way. But the worst of the lot, bar none, is brother Liam’s first songwriting attempt, “Little James,” an ode to his son. “Hey Jude” it is not—the lyrics are simplistic and cloying and the “na, na, na” choruses at the end are embarrassingly Beatle-esque (“Hey Jude” again).
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants kicks off with a sample-heavy instrumental (“Fucking in the Bushes”) that shows Noel’s dalliances with the Chemical Brothers have left their mark. But Noel hasn’t gone dance on us, not really. The song has the Monterey Pop Festival written all over it, from the Hendrix-like rippling lead guitar to the “ah, ah, ah, ah” choruses backed by a descending organ. The drums and rhythm have a bit of 1997/98 Big Beat to them and the samples sounds similar to the type used by Primal Scream in the early 1990s.
“Who Feels Love?” is a mid-tempo, laid-back, vaguely-Eastern, psychedelic affair that sounds, after several listenings, like the best Standing has to offer, as does the closer “Roll It Over” whose quietly building crescendos show Gallagher developing into a defter composer/arranger as each day goes by. “Gas Panic!” is another slow-grinder that oddly sounds a bit like what the Stone Roses may have sounded like today if they had held it together after Second Coming.
I guess since big brother indulged little brother and allowed “Little James” to make the cut, he felt he should get more than the requisite single lead singing track on the record. So Noel’s less brilliantly bombastic, but ultimately more affecting vocals power “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” and the lazy-in-the-sun “Sunday Morning Call.”
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants isn’t the near-masterpiece the band needs to resurrect their world-conquering level of stardom and near total omnipresence in the UK, nor is it the Zeitgeist soundtrack that was (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995) or the divine slab of ballsy rock that was Definitely Maybe (1994). But it is a record that works better and better with repeated listens, a departure from the deliverance of immediate gratification that we have been taught to expect from Oasis. It may well be a bridge to the next phase of Oasis’ career—away from the stadiums and the touring grind, just like their heroes the Beatles, and into the comfy studio confines where Noel Gallagher’s considerable pop smarts will grow and he can create the psychedelic masterpiece he’s fully capable of producing.