[16 August 2012]
Oasis are a great rock band. The problem they face, though, is that they likely won’t be remembered as a great one overall. The narrative that’s been shaped after years of new members, critical ribbings, and the persisting sibling rivalry between Noel and Liam Gallagher is that they put out two excellent LPs at the start of their career that they never lived up to. When the group dissolved after 2008’s good-but-not-great Dig Out Your Soul, most welcomed it with relief. A new (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? had failed to materialize since the mid-‘90s, and that was all the proof some needed to show how failed the latter half of Oasis’ run was.
I join the majority in their opinion about Definitely Maybe (1994) and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1996). They are superior recordings. But their strength doesn’t have to be the metric by which we judge the rest of Oasis’ career. If the only thing we consider when judging a band with a great first LP is how good the debut is, then we’ll almost always end up disappointed. Mogwai, for instance, broke ground in 1997 with Young Team, but since then have yet to receive a critical embrace as warm as that. Instead of viewing any great upstart as having to live by a standard they probably didn’t even set for themselves, it seems more sensible to view groups as progressive units that, if they’re any good, will try to divert from rehashing all their early material. “Wonderwall” is great, but if Liam and Noel had ridden that track until they called it quits, they’d have been even worse off than most see them now.
Oasis’ career is, in my view, a flawed one. But it isn’t one that’s irredeemable. I actually find a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll in their “late period” records, especially in Heathen Chemistry (2002), perhaps the most hated of all Oasis albums. As I mentioned in the first list in this series, it’s actually my favorite thing Oasis has done. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? may have been their best, but Heathen Chemistry is the one I always find myself coming back to. I even consider Don’t Believe the Truth (2005) and Dig Out Your Soul to be good albums. It’s perfectly reasonable to critique Oasis, as not everyone is bound to like them, but painting the band with lazy, broad brush strokes as it’s been done is inexcusable. Sure, the Gallaghers love the Fab Four, but to call them “Beatles ripoffs” is (a) untrue at the broad level and (b) unfairly reductive.
To pay tribute to this great British rock ‘n’ roll group, I’ve here compiled my ten favorite songs they wrote after the release of Be Here Now, 15 years ago this month. This list excludes B-sides, the subject of the last list, and focuses exclusively on their album cuts. Judging by the impassioned comment section of the last list, this one is likely to spark some controversy, as my picks tend to be eccentric. But I’ll defend them from anyone, just like I’ll defend Oasis. Twenty years from now, when they’re considered “classic rock”, I’ll be there to say, “I told you so.”
People may give Be Here Now all the crap they like, but I maintain that Standing on the Shoulder of Giants was a bigger misstep, as well as their worst album. The former may have been bloated and overlong, but at least some of the songs worked. On the latter, weak attempts at “psychedelic” songwriting undercut the brand of rock Oasis was truly good at. If you’ll forgive the ridiculous title, though, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in “Fuckin’ in the Bushes,” the rockin’ instrumental opener. This is a case where minor experimentation serves the band well. The beat is very much indebted to the Chemical Brothers, who the Gallaghers had collaborated with previously. After kicking in, the beat is joined by a suave spy-movie riff. An absolutely killer live track, “Fuckin’ in the Bushes” is the one memorable relic from the shipwreck that is Standing on the Shoulder of Giants; sometimes all it takes is a straightforward instrumental to prove a group still has their groove. It’s just a shame the rest of the record couldn’t live up.
Lighters out! Hands down the sappiest thing these lads have ever written, “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” is unabashedly cheesy, but unabashedly earnest as well. Noel’s voice (the better of the two) lends itself to an honest delivery, but Liam has to work at it. His sneer doesn’t always sell the most important lyrics in a song; here, he fails to make the clichéd “all of the stars are fading away lyric” anything but, well, clichéd. His turn here is actually quite effective, though. Every rock group has to have their inspirational song, and this is Oasis’ for sure. The arrangements are tastefully done too; a simple piano ballad can be excellent when done right, and though this isn’t a masterpiece it’s a great ballad by a band who’s particularly good at them.
Despite being a serious ballad, most will find the lyrics to “I’m Outta Time” as having arrived several albums too late. When Liam repeats the song’s title over and over again at its conclusion, there’s an eerie sense of foreboding; there were actually talks of a followup to Dig Out Your Soul, but the breaking up of the group made that out of that question. The chorus is particularly memorable, one of Oasis’ best: “If I’m to fall / Would you be there to applaud / Or would you hide behind them all?” The many events that precipitated the breakup—some of which are unclear—are many, probably too many for Liam to have known at the time of Dig Out Your Soul, yet from “I’m Outta Time” we get the sense that despite the three-album contract Oasis signed prior to this LP, there was only ever going to be one. Without its context, “I’m Outta Time” would have been just an ordinary ballad; with it, it’s near haunting.
As I made plainly aware in the first list of this series, I’m a big fan of the “Noel singing and playing acoustic guitar” formula Oasis used many times. (Spoiler alert for number 4 on this list…) When I first heard “Songbird,” I was surprised they didn’t let Liam do the same thing more often. This may lack the emotional punch that some of their better stripped-down songs have, but that’s not to say a sweet little track like this isn’t without its strengths. Lyrically this is pure Beatles territory, but the group’s love for that great British mainstay isn’t exactly news at this point, nor was it when Heathen Chemistry was released. But despite its formulaic elements and its short runtime at just over two minutes, “Songbird” is memorable for proving that Noel’s strict control of songwriting credit might have held back some memorable contributions from Liam. If a message like that can be conveyed in a two minute song that also has one earworm of a melody, it’s hard not to include it on a list like this.
The “song about a girl” trope is one well-worn in rock’s history, but Oasis made a wise choice in having this as the lead single off their forcefully titled 2005 release. When reduced to its basics “Lyla” is a simple and catchy chorus driven by a killer acoustic guitar riff; given the band’s propensity for failed attempts at “experimenting”, this simplicity much welcomed. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do better, but at times you just wanted to slap Oasis in the face (and by Oasis I mean their songwriter/dictator Noel) and say, “Stick to what you do best!” With “Lyla”, they did just that.
One of the vocal tactics the Gallaghers didn’t do enough was sing in alternate verses or in tandem. (No doubt the brothers’ constant feuding contributed to each sibling singing alone on their respective tracks.) When the two came together, the results were often fantastic, especially on cuts like “Acquiesce”. On “Bag It Up”, Liam tries something different: harmonizing with himself. I’s amazing how a single vocal trick can enliven a song; using the double-octave vocal trick made famous by Prince was a smart choice by these songwriters, who many saw as on their last legs. (And, of course, they were.) Liam sings about gold, silver, sunshine, and Lady Grey over a boot-stomping riff, creating one hell of an opening for Dig Out Your Soul.
Forget “Lyla”: if you want to talk about simplicity in the music of Oasis, “She Is Love” is the song to check out. It’s just a shaker, an electric organ, and Noel singing while strumming an acoustic guitar. For a band known for its excesses, for their ballads that aim at dramatic grandeur but usually end up in empty cliché, this poignant little ditty is refreshingly honest. It’s also probably the sweetest thing they’ve ever written—despite having written their fair share of love songs, their boorish behavior in public isn’t the type to lead to success romantically.
The titutlar pun of “Guess God Thinks I’m Abel” is never really quite explained. This is probably for the better; despite all the hits they have, Oasis have never been known for theologically clever jokes. Ostensibly, it’s about feeling always like the loser as the result of some perceived divine fate, but there’s no evidence in the lyrics to suggest this. Pushing aside the witty-yet-confusing title, “Guess God Thinks I’m Abel” is one of Liam’s best vocal performances, delivering the noir quip “You could be my railroad / We’d go on and on” just like a rock star should. And while it may be hard to believe Liam when he sings “No one could break us / No one could take us / If they tried”, for a guy who once sat at the top of the musical world, you at least know he’s been there before.
If Oasis had followed the format set by “Let There Be Love” for the many ballads that took up Be Here Now, they might not have suffered the fall from grace they did. Be Here Now cuts like “Stand by Me”, while catchy, were at times dramatic and over-the-top, to the point where any of the intended emotion just clubbed you over the head. On the beautifully, stately “Let There Be Love”, the Gallaghers use just enough of all the musical ingredients to make one of their all-time best ballads. They use strings, but the embellishments don’t overpower the song and transform it into some syrupy feel-good session. The acoustic guitar and piano are lightly played, giving emphasis to the lyrics, which are actually pretty good. (“Who stole the soul from the sun / In a world come undone at the seams?”) And, best of all, the brothers share vocal duties, which, even if only for a second, will make you believe there is—or rather was—some love in Oasis.
With the greatness of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? still ringing in my mind after discovering Oasis early in high school, I expected a lot from the next Oasis record I was going to buy. In deciding which one to pick, I stumbled upon the song “Little by Little”, one of the singles from Heathen Chemistry. Despite reading some particularly vitriolic reviews of the LP, I was taken immediately by that single. I like Liam’s voice well enough, but Noel’s always took the cake for me, and his performance on “Little by Little” remains my favorite of his to this day. Like “I’m Outta Time”, it can be something as a precursor to Oasis’ eventual dissolution, especially in the chorus lyric “Little by little / The wheels of your life have slowly fallen off / Little by little / You have to give it all in all your life / And all the time I just ask myself / ’Why are you really here?’” At times it’s a drag to listen to celebrities complain about the plights of stardom, as real as they may be—Liam and Noel Gallagher have achieved an amount of fame in 17 years that I won’t likely match in my lifetime. But at the same time these complaints remind us that they’re human, and that they may be in circumstances they hadn’t anticipated. In “Little by Little”, Noel sings the most honest words he’s sung during his tenure in Oasis, and long after Heathen Chemistry’s release their power can still be felt.