Without any pause to reflect on the demise of a once proud but accidental symbol of the cultural shift towards liberal decadence in Britain, this release carries baggage. Noel Gallagher’s self admittedly knee jerk exit from Oasis, the band he’d lead through unimaginable (but well documented) heights, tabloids, fights, fights in tabloids, critical failures, sackings, drugs, marriages, more drugs, divorces, more fights, reinvention and apparent stability was pulled apart by allegiances once water tight.
Two full years of musical exile later, Noel re-enters the frame flanked by a select few long term studio partners including producer Dave Sardy and trusted session hand Paul “Strangeboy” Stacey, so we’re right to expect good things.
Are we ready? I can’t confirm or deny that I was or wasn’t ready, but the bubbling anxiety filled me with a trembling fear that somewhere, somehow there was another “Sunday Morning Call” in this album just waiting to ruin my week. Noel will forever hold up high the Samaritan’s badge of honour that after years of baby sitting allowed his little brother Liam to unleash the truly diabolical “Little James” on 2000’s Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants.
However, this unforgivable editorial mishap was coupled with the release of the worst ever Oasis single, penned and sung by Noel himself. The pain, the boredom and the utter shame of having exchanged actual currency for those two tracks hang discouragingly low over every subsequent song signed N. Gallagher. Of course, that’s not fair on a man who’s good work is beyond almost any of his generation but it wasn’t fair on us either. So, caution and scepticism weigh heavily until the first spin is complete. That all said and potential disaster aside, hopes are high. There’s no word of a star appearance from the likes of Paul Weller, Richard Ashcroft or even Johnny Marr, but the formula is no less strong than before.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds begins with a cough, the shift of a chair before launching into a euphoric, string laden “Everybody’s On The Run”. The overriding sense is that this is Noel throwing his cards across the table, swigging his pint and calling out everyone who’d in his eyes, failed to stand by him. There is nothing of the punkish enthusiasm of 20 years ago. Here we’re presented with a picture painted with the drama usually reserved for the final track on any Oasis album post 1995. This is instantly heartfelt, defiant and almost melancholy that conjures up the image of an aching soul, sobbing in the bath. Noel? Is that you? The man who pre-empted the release of 2002’s Heathen Chemistry by justifying that he felt old enough at 35 to finally include the word “love” in one of his own songs? There we were, now here we are indeed. More rain soaked Mancunian misery, please.
While the strings fade out, the familiar chugging guitars reappear to put us back on our guard in white knuckled hope that there isn’t another “Sunday Morning Call” hidden in this pile. “Dream On” lends itself to Noel’s free, almost childlike rhythm of speech. Sadly, on this occasion, it doesn’t quite translate as the song meanders through with oddly piercing vocals to unsettle the dry melody. All is not lost – there’s a cheek to the lyrics that reverts the deep breathes of the opener back to a casual smirk as “The kids outside have drunk up all their lemonade, the bitch keeps bitchin’n’ all.” Really? Yeah, we’re back on a sodden, writers block inducing earth and it’s getting clearer that Producer Dave Sardy has a handy number here.
Pleasantly, the calming strum and tender vocal on unashamed ode to love “If I Had A Gun” appears. Warming into the song, the measured layers guitars make a feature of Noel’s ability to carve out a beautifully simple song. Overflowing with lines that in the hands of others would be easily dismissed as crass, there’s a sweetness to the delivery that can’t be denied. This is all very nice and while the track’s method has been well trodden over the Gallagher journey, everything is about to change.
Rattlesnakes? Nothing to do with Peter Green, that is a rattlesnake calling the senses to attention in the opening bars of “The Death Of You And Me”. A joker in the pack, cunningly thrown out in the form of a “debut” single. This is not Mancunian misery. Noel delivers here a rousing, New Orleans’ horn laden number setting free any inhabitation of a comfort zone. The commonly referenced influences from nearly 20 years in the public performance spotlight take a back seat while a clever, reflective and sometimes rhetorical lyric is backed by a sunny melody only to be roused with cheery horns. However, amid the masks of transformation, it is an old ever present that lets down this ambitious number – Noel’s voice. Rarely utilised on lead vocals for a single outside of a certain 1995 mega-hit, it would seem that Mr. Sardy should have put the breaks on here. Like in “Dream On” where the microphone tone is turned too far towards 11, unfairly distracting from an otherwise engaging redirection. Amicable and certainly well worth the sharp turn off the straight and narrow. However, not something that will be revered for years to come. Maybe next time.
After all that madness, we’re back in a 19 year old Noel’s star gazing brain, laying on the floor of his oft spoken of India House flat puffing a spliff while Exile On Main Street spins round and round. This is proving to be quite a ride… but who hasn’t ever thought “(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine”? The brackets might be superfluous, but so is (most of) this review. Amid gentle swirls and tender strings, the lyric jumps from past to present and back again until we’re reminded of something… there hasn’t been a guitar solo on this album yet. Ridiculous. Out and out fucking lazy, to be honest… Wait, there it is in typical short and sweet “frets with dots on them” stylistic intrusion. Noel’s tried and trusted. It works and it always will. Next!
Arriving at the second single to be drawn from the album, “AKA… What A Life!” the gear shifts. Driven by a snapping drum, bass and keys line, there’s no time wasted in the mid-set direction change. Influences are changing here too, this isn’t the old La’s/Beatles/Stones mix-tape we’ve come to expect and indeed, depend on. The stargazing lyrics remain, but it’s the psychedelic wave of reverb that drenches the vocals, bringing everything to the now, via the then. For all the intent of “The Death Of You And Me” and the spaghetti-western alter ego attempt to throw off the shackles, this song nails it. From the simple lyric, the reserved guitars, the keys shunting their way to the fore front without draining attention from what must be Noel’s greatest ever recorded vocal. Gentle, muted through the opening lines of “Someday, you might find your hero… Some say, you might lose your mind…” straight into a bridge of falsetto harmonies and back again. Listening, you can’t do anything but smile. Having kicked off the slow and cautiously altered vocal approach with the 2002 single “Little By Little”, there was a conscious effort to create some interest in the “Noel songs” on each Oasis output by way of the vocals progressing from the earlier style. Nine years on, we have something quite special.
“Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks” hits off in a “Let It Be” era Beatles chugging keys motion amid again a strangely reserved rhythm. The whispering vocals of the first few tracks remain only to be spoiled by the exploitation of Noel’s ability to hit higher notes than his brother. It’s unfortunate that a lyric of notable social comment of hope and anger is lost time in the studio. The horn section fills are equally wasted and surely there’s a lesson to be learned. Are we all remembering “Sunday Morning Call”? I am. Even after the euphoria of the previous tracks, the cold, fearful shivers are deep and unforgiving.
Instantly, “AKA… Broken Arrow” harks to the sing-a-long times of yesteryear as the cheery acoustic chords ring through. A defiant, visual ode those no longer required is sadly pained again by the soaring vocals of the chorus. Noel’s normally smooth, versatile voice is abandoned for the chorus, doing the lyric a genuine injustice with the overblown emphasis. It’s a real shame to swamp in particular the line “If I die in a dream, then let me live my life”. Thankfully, it is not forever and everything slides back to the default, temperate tones that make songs like this such a pleasure to listen to. Lovely things like shining lights and misty mornings all get a mention in a clever delivery (outside of the chorus), ushering in “AKA…” as this chapter’s (unexplainable) brackets.
Wrong, the brackets remain. The swaggering, bass driven introduction of “(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach,” is met with a mid-range “Faaaaaaalliiiiinng…” from Noel. Elements of a call to arms muddled with seduction finding a confident mood blinded (once again) by the obscenely but momentarily over zealous, vocals. Dave Sardy had one major task through the whole production of this album and he didn’t fucking do it. Perhaps assuming that Noel would self govern quite happily, he just pottered about the studio making tea, offering to run to the shops for biscuits and forgot to pull the reigns in when it mattered. The elements are all there as they will be when Noel Gallagher has any involvement, but this one could have been finished better.
Now then, reserved as a final treat on the album proper is an old title which may have been the beginnings its eventual release form. “Stop The Clocks”. This track has been the subject internet forum chatter for years. Legend has it that Noel unveiled it to a rather fortunate accidental gathering during a power black out, locked in a music store. Of course, very few chose to believe that as gospel, but there has always been a deal of jealousy reserved for if it should be proven true. Why wasn’t it ever released? According to Noel, it wasn’t a very “Oasis style” track. He’s right there, but not by much.
The song eases itself in, almost reservedly with the weight of expectation holding back any chance of startling a listener who’d nodded off during “Sunday Morning Call” upon first listen, 11 years ago. Chiming, gentle strumming of simple chords on an acoustic guitar is what Noel’s instrumental abilities do best. That’s not a criticism or even a burden. It’s comforting and reliable. I would challenge anyone to produce better with the same ingredients. All and more goes into this dreamy Lennon-esque closer. Ghosting though the hushed opening lines of “Stop the clocks and turn the world around; Let your love lay me down; And when the night is over, there’ll be no sound” there’s nothing more that need be said.
– Ciarán Wilcox