Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

The easy – and lazy –  way to describe High Flying Birds is it sounds exactly like you imagine it would.

Timing is everything, as I’m sure Noel Gallagher will attest. By now, we all know the ins and outs of the biggest British band of the 90’s – the drugs, the splits, the tantrums, the comebacks and the comedowns – and the sibling rivalry at the heart of it all. Having teased and hinted at a solo project for what seemed like forever, that fateful altercation in a Paris dressing room involving a plum and music’s most combustible brothers since the Davies has finally led to what fans and critics alike have been clamouring for. Trouble is, 2011 has already proved a dangerous time for those trying to recapture past glories. An album of his acoustic musings would no doubt have sold gazillions around the turn of the millennium, or even as late as 2005, when liking – or at least respecting – Oasis became acceptable again. But now? The world has moved on, and the omens aren’t great for someone who “writes songs in a certain style, on acoustic guitar” and thinks “the way people sell music is insane… it’s fucked now”. You see, timing is everything.

The easy – and lazy – way to describe High Flying Birds is it sounds exactly like you imagine it would. If you’re an Oasis fan, you’re gonna like it, and if you’re not, you probably won’t. But that only tells half the story. Gallagher has been at pains to point out how “different” this is, and how constrained he felt writing for Oasis, for stadiums, for Liam’s voice. Aside from the reality that, as a 44 year-old father of three, “you just don’t feel supersonic at 7.10am changing nappies”, he’s been enthusiastic about having a genuinely blank canvas this time, with no tours, no deadlines, and no management breathing down his neck. Coming from a man jointly responsible for ‘Setting Sun’ and who bemoaned his bandmates’ lack of interest in keyboards and drum samples from ‘Straight Outta Compton’, reading between the lines suggested a musical magpie finally set free, and moving with the times.

But old habits die hard. It’s true that age and domesticity has blunted the swagger and cockiness that embodied some of his best work, and there is no bluster here, but those characteristics have long been absent. The last decent stomper he penned was arguably ‘My Big Mouth’, written when trips on Concorde, coke, and cash were flowing freely, and perfectly sums up the monstrously overblown mess that was ‘Be Here Now’. Instead, HFB showcases his understated, melodic side, the sort of music he beavered away on to great effect for B-sides. There’s no killer riffs, and no soaring choruses, although his eye for a flourish remains. That’s obvious from opener ‘Everybody’s On The Run’, as close to a “lighters in the air” moment as the album gets. Allegedly taking it’s cue from Ennio Morricone, there’s a sweet piano and string interlude, while the Crouch End Festival Chorus lends it a somewhat grand air. It’s an auspicious start, but so far, so familiar.

Elsewhere, that much-vaunted progression and invention barely raises its head above the parapet. Those orchestral strings reappear on ‘(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine’ – perhaps the most convoluted song title ever – while ‘The Death Of You And Me’ features a blast of New Orleans jazz, recorded huddled around one mike, old school style. A trombone wails away in the background of ‘Dream On’ and ‘Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks’, the latter a (doomed) attempt at arch social commentary delivered in a strange, semi-spoken style. The one glaring exception to normality – discounting the musical saw and wine glass solos – is ‘AKA…What A Life!’, a stomping piano-disco number inspired by Rhythim Is Rhythim’s ‘Strings of Life’. It’s a daring effort and the standout track, showing what he’s capable of when he leaves the comfort blanket of his guitar behind – even though, predictably enough, he’s already done an acoustic version for German radio. Conceived without the prodding of a collaborator, it also overshadows the more insipid moments here. ‘Stop The Clocks’ should have been left in the past, as the Oasis soundcheck staple it was, and while ‘If I Had A Gun…’ is a sweet enough ballad, it was better first time round as ‘Wonderwall’. And second time round, as ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’.

Musical efficiency has always been a Gallagher signature, and self-plagiarising aside, he’s never given up on tired and tested melodies. That’s what makes everything here sound so safe, sofamiliar, and lyrically, we have the same themes of hope, despair, and how tomorrow is another day. He claims, “it’s the Irish in me”, but combining the uplifting with the melancholic has always been his great strength – sad songs for a lonely place that you can sing with drunk mates. That same sentiment – “life is shit, but we’ll be ok” – runs through ‘Slide Away’, ‘The Masterplan’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Little By Little’, ‘Let There Be Love’, and here gives us “I see another new day dawning / It was rising over me, with my mortality”.

Deriding all this, as some have, as “wistful, acoustic, mid-tempo plod” is unduly harsh and completely ignores a craft that is sadly lacking in most modern music. Gallagher never has, and never will, reinvent the wheel, but as a tuneful, tentative step in a new direction, it’s a promising start, and shows he hasn’t completely lost his magic. For those who shrug and proclaim his irrelevance, bear in mind he was allegedly head-hunted by Simon Cowell to judge X-Factor – he refused – and his flirtations with cinematic orchestration (aping Danger Mouse’s ‘Rome’) and upcoming collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous prove that, as an auteur, his finger is still firmly on the pulse. That album, a supposedly psychedelic tour de force that will “melt your face”, drops early next year, and if their 22-minute remix of ‘Falling Down’ is anything to go by, it’ll be anything but boring. Post Oasis, it will mark a complete defection from the singer-songwriter blueprint many thought awaited him. Unlike in his previous incarnation, we can only hope this isn’t yet another false dawn.

Tags: Noel Gallagher, Reviews, Album Reviews

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