When Britpop’s leading group Oasis imploded in 2009 following one final blow-up between eternally quarreling siblings Noel and Liam Gallagher, it was somewhat surprising that bandmates Gem Archer and Andy Bell would elect to throw their lot in with the latter of the two to form Beady Eye. Of the pair, Liam is the more volatile: easy to rankle, quick to anger, and infamous for resorting to physical violence to settle disputes. Regardless of whatever the cause of the break might have been or who may have been at fault, the aftermath left Noel, Oasis’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter, without an outlet for his material.
Considering this is a man who has incessantly boasted for close to two decades about his songwriting prowess, it was inevitable that Noel Gallagher would find a way to get his latest batch of songs out there in some fashion. It would be reasonable to say that the public (in Britain, at least), concurs with Gallagher’s self-assessment. Evidently viewing him as the true talent from Oasis compared to his little brother and his old sidemen, British consumers have responded accordingly at the sales counters. Noel’s debut solo LP has noticeably emerged to a better reception than Beady Eye has mustered with its output so far, topping the UK Albums Chart upon release and already spinning off two Top 20 pop singles. Given the reception, it looks like Liam’s floated idea for a 2015 Oasis reunion to commemorate the 20th anniversary of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? isn’t something Noel will be attentively mulling over any time soon.
The clumsily titled Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is only half-heartedly positioned as more than a mere solo project. There’s no question that the man is firmly in charge here, freed up from having to share top billing with his singing sibling. Eschewing the sort of heads-down, group shout-along rock ‘n’ roll anthems Oasis (Liam in particular) always favored, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds focuses on the songwriter’s other well-trod creative stomping areas, bouncy psychedelic pop and balmy balladry. Bolstered by full-bodied and warm production that suggests Gallagher’s legendary self-confidence has not been diminished one iota in the two years since his group’s demise, these ten songs are augmented with loads of strings, brass, and backing singers wherever possible, with touches of electronica production tricks that suggest a newfound sense of experimentalism.
Well, experimental for Noel Gallagher. Though Gallagher has expressed adoration for everything from grunge to Krautrock to trip-hop over the years, Oasis’ repertoire was strictly defined by extremely catholic classic rock reference points. If there was no guitar, no hook, and no giant chorus, the band didn’t give a toss. Gallagher continues to follow a musical gameplan dictated by the very rigid parameters of what the songwriter considers to be emblematic of great rock music. So as in past offerings, the album is built upon sing-song melodies reliant on repetitive two- or four-bar phrases, simplistic rhyme schemes (“If I had the time / I’d stop the world and make you mine”) that aim for universality over profound meaning, and plodding, strident rhythms that exhibit a dearth of syncopation. The most bounce you get is in the rootsy shuffles found in the likes of “The Death of You and Me”, but that tune is just aping the more baroque side of the Kinks and the Beatles, two of Gallagher’s chief idols and most transparent influences (not to mention owning a more direct debt to the verses from Oasis’ “The Importance of Being Idle”). Song structures follow predictable verse/chorus formats, and bridges like that in “(I Wanna Live in a Dream in My) Record Machine” only ratchet up linear emotional sensation instead of veering into new directions. “Stop the Clocks”, a scrapped Oasis tune that Gallagher has resurrected for his new project, at least throws in prechoruses that lead to satisfying explosions of blatantly psychedelia-redolent soloing.
True, it’s not like anyone should be anticipating any new tricks from the proudly formalist Gallagher at this stage. Observers have known not to expect him to deviate too much from his formula ever since the overcooked Be Here Now (1997) proved to even Oasis’ most optimistic advocates that the band’s idea of a sonically ambitious record involved little more than making all the songs over five minutes long and adding unnecessarily excessive amounts of guitar overdubs. However, this record won’t dispel the popular notion that Noel’s Midas touch was depleted writing the first two Oasis albums. The next “Live Forever” or “Wonderwall” certainly isn’t found here, but you do get “AKA… Broken Arrow”, a song that heavily trades on “Wonderwall” for ideas. “(Stranded on) The Wrong Beach” is another glaring example of how limited Noel’s bag of tricks is as it cribs the lapping waves tide sound effect from “Champagne Supernova” for its conclusion. Even when he’s trying to experiment, Gallagher can only stretch so far. Noel spoke in a Quietus interview of trying to evoke acid house in the single “AKA… What a Life!”, his acceptable stab at indie dance, but filtered through his sensibilities the track ends up more akin to an offering by Oasis-worshipping Brit rock group Kasabian.
Even with all the bells and whistles, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is not much more than what one would expect given the name on the artwork — and sure, that will suit many potential purchasers perfectly fine. Beneath the shiny new ear candy, the album pedles the same sort of passable exercises in Gallagher’s patented populist songcraft that have populated the last decade’s worth of Oasis LPs, with the main difference being the boorish laddishness embodied by Liam is totally absent (one of the album’s virtues is that it reminds listeners that Noel has a fine if undistinguished singing voice, a talent that was understandably underutilized in Oasis in favor of his brother’s grittier and more expressive vocal abilities). It’s a slight departure from Noel’s usual pub and football terrace-friendly fare, but only just, and absence of Liam in front of the microphone instantly leaves the potential of the material to surpass its average nature untapped, since it was his cocksure delivery that often made latter-day Oasis any interesting. Long-starved Oasis fans can take solace in the notion that although there’s no chance of Gallagher returning to his mid-’90s creative peak, he’s maintaining his brand with a sincere stab at variance at least.