The Flipside #1: Oasis' 'Heathen Chemistry' Turns 15
PopMatters' newest column kicks off with a reappraisal of the Oasis album time forgot: Heathen Chemistry, which turns 15 this July. Although the album was widely maligned upon its release, we dare to ask about this songbird: maybe it's good?
In the style of PopMatters' long-running Sound Affects column Counterbalance, wherein authors Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger discussed the Most Acclaimed Albums of All Time list (according to Acclaimedmusic.net), Evan Sawdey and I have decided to start our own discussion column, The Flipside. Like the great duos before us -- Hannity & Colmes, Statler and Waldorf, Salt and/or Peppa -- Evan and I cast our gaze on pop culture in all of its manifestations, especially where it has been misconstrued, under or over appreciated, and perhaps forgotten about – for good or bad reasons.
Our focus will encompass not just music, but also film, television, and also broad cultural trends -- though we prefer not to comment on fidget spinners, thank you very much. This series will run bi-weekly. We encourage all readers, if they're so interested, to continue our debates in the comment sections below. Both of us know that with any given topic, there's always a flipside. -- Brice Ezell
Ezell: I'll begin with a sentence no one on the planet has ever uttered: I remember exactly where I was when I bought my copy of Oasis' Heathen Chemistry. I was in junior high. I purchased the album at a now-defunct record store in Santa Barbara, California. The first thing that caught my eye about the album was its digibook format; like many record shops, this one sold promo odds-and-ends that record shops technically aren't supposed to sell. Listening to the album after leaving the store, I was grabbed immediately by the music. The swampy blues of "Force of Nature" forms the perfect background for Noel Gallagher's vocals. "Don't Stop Crying Your Heart Out" appealed to the part of me that's a sucker for a piano ballad. Then there's the huge, transcendent chorus of "Little by Little", to date my favorite Oasis song. In my first listen of the album, I never thought it a flawless masterpiece -- to this day I still don't understand why the throwaway instrumental "A Quick Peep" exists -- but I did think it a great rock record.
Not long after putting Heathen Chemistry into my Discman for the first time (yes, those were the days), I looked into what everyone else thought about the album. As it turns out, I was something of a weirdo. What I thought was a great record store find was, as it turns out, actually The. Worst. Oasis. Album. Ever. The critical opinion of Heathen Chemistry spanned solely from the indifference to outright loathing. In a jokey review for Pitchfork, Rob Mitchum likens the obviousness of Oasis' musical influences on the album to "Xerox[ing] the entirety of Crime and Punishment... [and] chang[ing] the title to Russian Psycho." Steven Hyden, in a defense of Oasis penned 13 years after Heathen Chemistry's release, calls it "an album so inconsequential that you can't see it when you hold it up to most mirrors." Of course, I could have easily chalked up all the negative press as a case of "to each their own," yet I was struck by the outright disdain for Heathen Chemistry. At worst it's a boring rock album, but certainly not so bad as to inspire the snark of Mitchum and the others who share their distaste for the LP.
On the 15th anniversary of Heathen Chemistry, my feelings remain the same: it's a favorite Oasis record of mine, one I am willing to go to bat for. So tell me, Evan, am I a weirdo?
Sawdey: Well Brice, let me tell you that from years of critical experience here, of course: you're a weirdo.
You've expressed to me multiple times your love of this album, and while letting me first say that I do not agree with your assessment that it is a treasured masterpiece, I can tell you, especially in prepping for this revived Counterbalance-style piece, that it is far from the worst Oasis album. That title, as we all know, goes to Be Here Now, which is a cocaine wank in search of a hook.
Believe it or not, at the time of release, I was legitimately stoked to hear this album. Why? Because Oasis has this weird little knack for putting out the best songs as singles. This theory isn't flawless ("Roll With It" is no one's favorite Oasis song and there exists no evidence of such a fan ever ranking it their best -- I checked the archives), but it holds up pretty darn well. "The Hindu Times" is so easily, confidently, conclusively the best song on here that I'm actually kinda disappointed it never became a larger hit. (It was still #1 in the UK, of course.)
The lyrics, as are so often the case with Noel's work, are specifically pointed contradictory nonsense, but that groove, that firm mid-tempo stomp, those ascending wiry guitar noodles -- it's all laced in with that sneer of Liam, and it's just fantastic. But wait, Brice, look at what you just said: "It's a favorite" Oasis album. Does that mean it's your favorite-favorite, dislodging (What's the Story) Morning Glory? as the undisputed regrets-and-lager masterpiece from its lofty critical canon?
Ezell: I often make a distinction between "favorite" and "best" albums, and this is a case of that for me. For sentimental and musical reasons, Heathen Chemistry is my favorite Oasis album, but I think it's reasonable to say that it's clearly not their best, in terms of songwriting and achievement. I do think What's the Story easily bests their other albums, but I have a great fondness for Heathen Chemistry, warts and all.
In a way, Heathen Chemistry was doomed even before it came out. Released two years after what is for me the worst Oasis LP, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Heathen Chemistry initially received a somewhat eager anticipation on the part of fans and critics. Some foresaw it as "return to form" for the band following two duds, both Giants and the spectacular miscalculation that is Be Here Now. In other words, Heathen Chemistry needed to be a much bigger album than it is. It didn't help that Britpop had faded into a blur, or that rock music was entering its phase where all bands had to abide the form name "The ______s." Part of me thinks that no matter what record Oasis put out in 2002, it wouldn't have been good enough.
Sawdey: Right, I agree you there. It's a shame too: this feels like the attempt of a "return to form" album, while 2005's sterling Don't Believe the Truth really, truly was a return to form. (On certain days, Don't Believe may actually be my favorite Oasis record.)
Honestly, my biggest revelation this week in listening to it was that it wasn't a bad album: just a very "Oasis-by-numbers" experience. This, in part, may very well be becaof use Noel Gallagher, principal songwriter extraordinaire, finally, decides to step back a bit and let all the other members of the band take a turn at writing songs. Amazingly, Gem Archer, Andy Bell, and an increasingly prolific Liam all manage to write songs that sound a hell of a lot like Noel Gallagher songs. Yes, "A Quick Peep" was Bell's little Doors-y vamp, which ... sure, have fun. But "Hung in a Bad Place", despite having an awful title, swings like a tossed-off Noel number, which is both a compliment and a complaint at the same time, but not a bad showing from Gem. The group's songwriter powers would increase over the course of their remaining albums, but Liam's turns are the most fascinating here. He's like any songwriter: capable of writing bad songs ("Born on a Different Cloud"), pretty OK songs ("Born on a Different Cloud"), and a pretty phenomenal little country-rocker in the form of "Songbird", which has, interestingly, some heart.
Having those small, notable moments of sentimentality (but not necessarily vulnerability) grounds the rest of the band's braggadocio. Their too-phenomenal odds-n-sods comp, The Masterplan had more than a few moments of these, and "Songbird" is the kind of thing that helps elevate the disc. Still, it's clearly the Noel how, and it's still pretty good.
Ezell: You're quite right about Don't Believe the Truth, an album that suffers two unfortunate fates: (1) being released, like Heathen Chemistry, after Oasis' halcyon days, and (2) being released after Heathen Chemistry. Whatever goodwill the band had left with the public had all but evaporated by then. Not even the decent-to-good press for the final Oasis LP, Dig Out Your Soul, could save the day.
The trade-off between Noel and the other members of the band does make Heathen Chemistry unique in the Oasis catalog. As with most of my other favorite Oasis tunes, Noel's contributions outrank the others here: the gritty, anthemic "Little By Little" and the simple yet infectious "She Is Love" is the cream of Heathen Chemistry's crop. While the non-Noel tunes comprise many of the weakest moments here -- see the flat chorus of "Hung in a Bad Place", the throwaway "A Quick Peep" -- there's plenty to like from the other members of the group. I share in your enjoyment of "Songbird", which is a minor but memorable tune. Liam's songwriting skill evolved on that track.
Where "Songbird" puts a smile on my face, "Born on a Different Cloud" fascinates me. Like many Liam-penned tunes, the song reeks of John Lennon, so much so that I can't remember reading a review of Heathen Chemistry that didn't take the time to mention that fact. But similar to the gorgeous "I'm Outta Time" on the so-so farewell album by Oasis, 2008's Dig Out Your Soul, "Born on a Different Cloud" is a case of a songwriter employing an obvious influence to a compelling effect, even as the source material remains obvious. While I understand the music critic's trepidation toward anything that sounds like the equivalent of copying someone else's homework, it's not as if Beatlesisms weren't present on Definitely Maybe and What's the Story (Morning Glory). Oasis' sound, even at its best, amalgamates numerous different styles of British rock, yet this doesn't mean their music suffers for it. To my ears, "Born on a Different Cloud" gives Lennon's style a lovely, spacey afterlife. The tune is also a great lead-in to the rollicking Liam/Noel cowrite "Better Man", which closes out the record.
Sawdey: Shame then that "Stop Crying Your Heart Out" is a pretty placid little weeper, am I right?
Ezell: I'll defend that song! The juxtaposition of minor chords in the verses with the sunny major chords in the chorus does its job for me -- as it did for, I read not long after first hearing Heathen Chemistry, English football fans after they lost to Brazil in the 2002 World Cup. "Don't Stop Crying Your Heart Out" doesn't hit the transcendent peaks of a number like "Champagne Supernova", but it is exactly the kind of song I want to sing along with hundreds of people in a crowded stadium.
Sawdey: Shame you have to wait for them to reunite before the sun explodes... I'm kidding; they'll never reunite.
Ezell: And I never want them to. I am far from the kind of person to want a band to reunite no matter the cost. If a band calls it quits after feeling that they've said all they've needed to say, good on them. Another one of my favorite English bands, Porcupine Tree, did just that after its 2009 LP The Incident, which did feel like a "this is where we end, guys" kind of record. When My Bloody Valentine came back with m b v in 2013, I wondered to myself, "What else was there to say after Loveless, exactly?", a question that follow-up record decidedly did not answer affirmatively.
As for Oasis, I luckily don't have to wait for them to reunite to hear songs from Heathen Chemistry. Noel, with his band the High Flying Birds, performed many of his old Oasis tunes, including "Little By Little", on several recent tours. However, that'd mean sitting through numerous Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds tunes, which... well...
Sawdey: That being said, I must say that while it's far from their most adventurous album, it's not bad. For me, it didn't break into the cultural consciousness the way the first two did, but dismissing it would dismiss some really fine songs. For my money, it may be their most middle-of-the-road album, but it goes without saying that it belies the negative connotations associated with it.
Ezell: Saying that Heathen Chemistry is my favorite Oasis album is akin to labeling Southland Tales the best film of the '00s, or that Radiohead really hit its stride on The King of Limbs: if anyone listens, they likely won't listen seriously. Luckily for me, I know you meaningfully entertained my madness here, even if only for a little bit. While I'll never tout Heathen Chemistry as the apotheosis of Britpop or the cornerstone achievement of Oasis' career, I will say that it is a damn fine rock album that got released at the wrong time.
Sawdey: Or "Hung in a Bad Place", if you will.