Right before I popped Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds into my computer for a first listen, I thought, “It’s going to be hard for Noel to pull this off.” As one half of rock’s most contentious sibling rivalry, Noel Gallagher has indirectly weathered decades of criticism for his brother Liam’s drunken and borderline-abusive actions, for his own pretentious comments (he once called Jack White “Zorro on doughnuts”) and for Oasis’ inability to get its act together.
Oasis may have produced some hugely popular rock ‘n’ roll songs — next time you’re at a bar, play “Wonderwall” on the jukebox and count the number of people who sing along — but the band hasn’t really been relevant since the late 1990s. Instead, Liam and Noel spent much of the past decade releasing subpar albums and engaging in public squabbles. The Britpoppers officially broke up in 2009 and, in traditional Gallagher fashion, Liam then threatened to sue Noel for claiming that he missed a festival date because of a hangover (Liam says it was laryngitis). With High Flying Birds, Noel is doing the musical equivalent of stepping back into society after a very high-profile divorce.
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He doesn’t really need Oasis, of course. In fact, you could argue that Noel was Oasis. The best of the band’s songs — “Champagne Supernova,” “Shakermaker,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “D’You Know What I Mean?” — were almost all written by Noel, who was also the band’s lead guitarist and occasional singer (that’s him on “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” which, of course, he also wrote). Clearly he was the only Gallagher brother capable of producing an artful solo album.
Which this is. It also happens to sound just like an Oasis album. The 10 songs on Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds are replete with big, guitar-heavy melodies and drawn out vocals sung over strings, horns, piano — there’s so much going on here that I imagine Noel wandering through the recording studio and adding any instrument he could get his hands on. I could go through a track-by-track explanation of the album, telling you that “(I Wanna Live a Dream In My) Record Machine” sounds like it’s composed of the discarded leftovers of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and that “If I Had A Gun” could fit nicely on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory. But I don’t really have to. If you’ve ever heard Oasis, then Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds sounds exactly like what you might imagine. If you like that sound, you’ll like this album. If you don’t, you won’t.
Is this a problem for Noel? Oasis was a great band and he its greatest component. And he and Liam spent so much of their early careers claiming that they wanted to be the biggest band in the world. (That’s more pressure than any group should ever place upon themselves, at least publicly.) Though they never quite got there, for a few years they came really, really close. So in a way, High Flying Birds has allowed Noel to break free of all that and write the kind of music he does best. Not to say the album is entirely a rehash. He is trying a few new things: “(Stranded on) the Wrong Beach” gets a little glam-rockish at times while “AKA…What a Life” has a pulsing rhythm that feels a bit like something Depeche Mode might have put out. But the album falls short of the type of brilliance Noel has achieved in the past, which is a shame. I was hoping for another song to dominate that bar jukebox.
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