There has always been a sense of inevitability that, one day, the two battling egos that ruled Oasis would go their separate ways and continue their never-ending family feud in public to coincide with their respective “debut” albums. As someone who has followed their soap opera since the mid-90s, I’ve learned to put all that shit to the back of my thoughts and concentrate on the music. I’m guessing most Oasis fans will be doing the same, not picking sides. It also would be almost too easy to put Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds up against Beady Eye and pick each apart and declare a winner. But that’s the kind of crap I’d rather leave for someone else if they so desire. I like them both and don’t see it as a conflict.
I’m just pleased that two of the leading figures that opened the door into the wonderful world of rock ‘n’ roll for me are still around and making music that I can still dig.
I already know that Noel Gallagher is a master at constructing songs that not only are simply catchy but also can connect with large audiences of differing backgrounds, tastes, culture, etc. He’s not interested in musical revolution now or ever, so stop expecting him to attempt to do so. Gallagher is just a great songwriter who has never hidden his limitations or debt to bands such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and so on.
While many still find it amusing and clever to simply retort “This sounds like The Beatles” as some kind of criticism of Oasis, I equally simply reply, “What’s wrong with that?” The Beatles were an amazing group and if I had to pick one band for others to follow, it would definitely be them. So on Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, I’m not expecting a massive shift. The only real question I would have is how a full album of Noel Gallagher songs sung only by Noel will sound. How much does he need Liam’s voice to make his songs that extra bit more special?
An advantage Noel has over other lead-guitarists-turned-frontmen is that we already know what his voice sounds like. He’s the guy who sang ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, ‘The Masterplan’, and countless other album tracks and b-sides that are (for want of a better phrase) familiar to millions. As a singer, he does just fine. He lacks the power of Liam, but the songs that appear here are made for him to sing. I’ll admit I’ve tried to imagine what some of these songs would have sounded like with Liam singing them and while I would like to know what ‘If I Had A Gun’ might sound like with the Oasis singer on lead vocal, could it really be any better than what it sounds like on this album?
Releasing this song before the album’s release had both a good and bad effect. It certainly reaffirmed how good Noel Gallagher songs can be, but it also perhaps unfairly raised the bar on the rest of the album. It’s not unreasonable to say that ‘If I Had A Gun’ easily fits into Gallagher’s top 10 best tunes he’s ever penned and is, on its own, worth the price of admission into his new world of High Flying Birds. Such a beautiful harmony and structure, it hits so hard with a perfect build that is just so compelling. While lyrically, it is a love song (“I hope I didn’t speak too soon/My eyes have always followed you around the room/’cause you’re the only God that I will ever need”), it takes on an almost grander state and ends up sounding like something so much more important.
And that’s a knack that Gallagher has always had when at his best.
Outside of ‘If I Had A Gun’, this is still a very fine and consistently pleasing record. With the exception of Don’t Believe The Truth, Oasis albums post-Be Here Now have been very patchy and ultimately disappointing. Whether from a renewed focus or just keeping the best songs he had for this moment (I wouldn’t put it past him!), there is nothing here that you could call filler. And perhaps my biggest relief is that no song here sounds as turgid as efforts such as ‘She Is Love’. Everything on the album sounds like it belongs.
‘Everybody’s On The Run’ is a towering opening track. Boasting what sounds like a complete orchestra and choir in the background, it instills that sense of vitality and importance that I mentioned earlier. “Hang in there love/You’ve got to hold on”, sings Gallagher as if all of our lives depend on it. Dare you not hold on when your ears are being swayed with such majesty? Things become a little lighter on ‘Dream On’, a fun little song that is the first to incorporate some of those Kinks-isms that have sneaked into Gallagher’s songwriting of late. Again, it has a booming chorus just waiting to be sung along to.
First single ‘The Death Of You And Me” features a couple of lyrical gems (“Watching my TV/Or is it watching me” & “The bottom of a bottle is every man’s apostle”) and was a great way to introduce himself as a solo artist. It has the familiar sounds of ‘The Importance Of Being Idle’ and does show growth in his craft. Incorporating brass and a rhythmic pattern that maybe would fit on an Oasis record, this is the kind of song that many might envision Damon Albarn writing as some kind of ode to Ray Davies. The fact that it’s Noel Gallagher makes it quite a fascinating tune indeed.
One of the bigger talking points regarding this album for some reason has been ‘AKA What A Life!’, which has been headlined as “Noel Gallagher goes dance.” It really isn’t. Those who have been declaring this a left-field creative jump are obviously not really that interested in Noel as a musician. He wrote ‘Setting Sun’ and ’Let Forever Be’ with the bloody Chemical Brothers years ago, he did an instrumental, chilled-out dance track called ‘Teothuican’ for the first X-Files film. More recently, on the final Oasis album, there was a song called ‘Falling Down’ which basically had all the elements you can find on ‘AKA What A Life!’ It always been there and has always been of interest to Noel Gallagher.
Maybe his collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous that he has recorded and is slated for release next year will see something a little more worthy of such chatter. ‘AKA What A Life!’ is a top tune by the way, but it’s no more dance that The Stone Roses’ ‘Begging You’ was and I don’t remember such furor back then and, really, rock music and dance music have ceased to be independent quantities since New Order and Madchester back in the 1980s. Good music is just good music.
Further highs include the marvelous chorus of ‘Broken Arrow’ and the ‘Dead End Street’-sounding verses of ‘Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks’. ‘(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach’ is quickly becoming a favourite of mine and has a real swagger to it. I think this may have been a song that was originally written with Liam Gallagher’s vocals in mind as I swear Noel does a bit of a Liam impression on the song’s chorus. It’s great.
The record ends with ‘Stop The Clocks’, a song that has definitely been hanging around for a while but for whatever reason was never recorded by Oasis (one of the band’s compilation albums was called Stop The Clocks, but the track was not included). It’s a soothing piece of chiming psychedelia and a fitting finale. The droning repetition eventually takes off and into a kaleidoscopic, clattering, noisy finish that will surely be sensational in a live setting.
I guess thinking about it, I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. I accepted some time ago that Noel Gallagher would never reach the levels he did on Definitely Maybe or (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. He’s only shown glimpses of that greatness over the past 10+ years and has been at times a frustratingly inconsistent musician to follow.
When Oasis released ‘The Shock Of The Lightning’ as a single in the lead-up to what would be their final album, Dig Out Your Soul, I thought it was the best thing he had done since those heady days of Britpop. The majority of the eventual album that followed was painfully average and this was my fear for this record after hearing ‘If I Had A Gun’ prior to the rest of the songs.
But it’s not that way. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is a wonderfully poised and consistent record throughout. There is some adventure, but it mostly relies on the solid songwriting. The more prominent sounds of brass as well as female backing vocals add something different to the mix, but if you liked Oasis, chances are you will like Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Perhaps being in Oasis became too easy, he had other songwriters to fall back on in Gem Archer, Andy Bell and even his brother later on following the post-Be Here Now lineup change. Now with the focus solely on him, it’s as if he has regained that focus and perhaps with a slight feeling that he has something to prove Noel Gallagher has even found a new spark.
High-flying? Indeed, soaring once again.