Oasis and their audience seem to have agreed to not grow up together. The band was founded on an ideal of rock and roll as the coked-up, cocksure arrogance of lads on the Saturday night lash, and though Noel Gallagher has enrolled in the dadrock school of songcraft and Liam has written the odd number for his kids, it’s hard to say in 15 odd years they’ve ever seen much point in looking any further. Yet the lads and ladettes who swayed and brayed along at Knebworth must be deep into their thirties by now. Are these teary, bleary closing-time anthems about booze and fags enough to see them through middle age?
News that tickets for Oasis’ entire tour sold out in less than an hour – in your face, Michael Eavis – suggests they may be, being just the latest testament to the remarkable, enduring devotion of their fans. Such loyalty can seem strange. The acts who span the decades are usually those that somehow soundtrack their audience’s lives – think how far Paul Weller fans, for example, have travelled with him since they first donned their parkas in the fourth form.
But why bother with maturity? When Liam leers “Love is a time machiiiiine” on “The Shock of the Lightning”, the first single from Oasis’ seventh album, it’s almost as though the act keeping faith with your teenage passions could keep you young. The song is the first sign of a change of tack in the Gallagher camp. After the well-tempered Kinksy refinement of 2005’s Don’t Believe The Truth, Noel has talked about getting back to a groove rather than classic rock pastiche, and to be honest, it’s a welcome move. Despite their Merseybeat pretensions (and DOYS inevitably comes replete with references to “magical mysteries”, revolutions in the head, and even samples of John Lennon interviews), Oasis were never convincing as the Manc Beatles, but were far better as some kind of Burnage Stooges – heroically moronic products of post-industrial, suburban boredom, welding together secondhand riffs like used-car salesman, with idiot-savant frontmen daring the crowd to make something of it.
The first half of DOYS goes some way to making good on that promise, and may be the most thrilling half hour of music they’ve mustered since their second album. “Bag It Up” could be a sequel to the Fall’s take on “Mr Pharmacist” – a ramshackle speedfreak racket, Liam taking refuge from “the freaks coming up through the floor” with his “heebeegeebies in a little bag”. Both “The Turning” and “Waiting For The Rapture” ride along on grinding monotone riffs, pitched somewhere between the blunt frustration of “Raw Power” and the desperation of “Gimme Shelter”. Running straight into the short, sharp “Shock of the Lightning”, this is a terrific sequence – urgent, wired, alive for the first time in ages.
Even the interruption of one of Liam’s Lennon ballads isn’t unwelcome. “I’m Outta Time” is lovely, right down to its impeccably George Harrison guitar solo – and once again seems to be about the disenchantments of growing old. “Y’know, It’s getting harder to fly” sings Liam with unaccustomed modesty. “If I were to fall, would you be there to applaud?”
“(Get Off Your) High Horse Lady” is a pretty funny title and not much more, but it gives us a breather before “Falling Down”, which implausibly enough, this late in the day, is one of the best songs Noel’s ever written. Riding along on a downbeat echo of that “Tomorrow Never Knows” drum break, Noel complains of trying to talk to God to no avail, as the sun comes down on all he knows. “We live a dying dream, if you know what I mean,.” And for once you kind of do. Turns out we’re not going to Live Forever after all.
It’s a brilliant closing track. But unfortunately, Dig Out Your Soul is not over yet by a long way. It’s almost as though, feeling pretty pleased with himself, Noel has taken the afternoon off and let the rest of the band finish the record. And so we have to deal with: “To Be Where There’s Life” – a sub-Heavy Stereo stewed psychedelic blues jam from Gem that gives the album its title; “Ain’t Got Nothing” – a self-explanatory squib from Liam; the Ruttles raga of Andy Bell’s “The Nature of Reality” (it’s “pure subjective fantasy,” in case you were wondering, epistemology fans) and then the closing track, another Liam contribution, “Soldier On”. In a way the song seems like a strange echo of the Stone Roses “Fools Gold” – the original stoned scally, baggy odyssey – except now 20 years on, drained of every ounce of funk or idealism, the quest has been reduced to a dire, joyless test of endurance, of keeping, on keeping on.
It’s an uninspiring ending to a record that it’s best faces up to some pretty downbeat truths and thus seems to fit right into the current national mood. But is this really what we want from Oasis?
It may be that the genre they really fit into is the terrace anthem. They made their name with songs to sing when you were winning, when you were young and it didn’t take much more than cigarettes and alcohol to make you feel like you were a rock and roll star. Like New Labour, they’ve benefited from the good fortune of ten years of relative plenty. But really, the great football songs are the ones you sing when you’re losing – when you’re relegated to the third division, or you’ve been twatted at home by United or your club’s been taken over by criminal plutocrats. They’re songs that give you heart, in spite of it all – “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, “Blue Moon”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. As their audience slump into middle age, and recession looms, when folk might lose their homes, their jobs and more, it may be that Oasis’s biggest challenge is to give their audience something to sing along to when there’s not much else to shout about. Are they up to it? Are they still mad for it?
As startling as it was to see Noel Gallagher attacked onstage last month at the Virgin Festival in Toronto, it was arguably the most exciting thing that’s happened to Oasis in over 10 years. For a band that once valorized rock’n’roll stardom as a vehicle through which to escape routine day jobs, Oasis have gone about their own rock’n’roll stardom as if it were a routine day job, their last decade of recorded output amounting to a model of passionless, assembly-line predictability. And yet, the Mancunian rockers have mostly held onto their status as the People’s Band despite being 14 years and several million pounds removed from their scrappy, working-class roots– mainly because (as their concert set-lists and greatest-hits CD tracklists prove), much like their legions of fans, Oasis only want to hear songs from their first two albums, too.
No one knows exactly what compelled 47-year-old Daniel Sullivan to bodycheck Noel into his stage monitors (busting the guitarist’s ribs and forcing several show cancellations in the process); one can only hope he wasn’t so much a psychopath looking to off a celebrity as a concerned fan hoping to shake some life into his favorite band and literally push them back to the underdog position that inspired their most enduring anthems. But we’ll have to wait another album to see if the incident instills in Noel a newfound hunger and fire; for now we’re stuck with Dig Out Your Soul, which like every Oasis album from 1997’s Be Here Now onward, makes cursory gestures toward making the band’s mod-rock more modernist, before reverting back to the same ol’, same ol’.
The precipitous quality decline in Oasis’ output since Be Here Now – whose increasingly uninspired successors make it seem not so bad in retrospect – can be measured two ways: the ballads got more overbearing (“Little by Little”, “Where Did It All Go Wrong?”), and the rockers more sluggish (“Go Let It Out”, “The Hindu Times”). At the very least, Dig Out Your Soul makes inroads to redressing both issues: the lilting sea shanty “Falling Down” is Noel’s most graceful balladic turn since B-side “The Masterplan”, while lead single “The Shock of the Lightning” is exactly the sort of tune Oasis needs more of to stave off impending geezerdom, a hard-driving strobe-lit rocker– complete with a rejuvenating vocal turn from Liam and a suitably Keith Moon-like drum solo from moonlighting Who drummer Zak Starkey. It could be their most robust song since “Morning Glory”; only a clunky middle eight lyric– “Love is a time machine/ Up on the silver screen”– keeps it from entering the highest echelons of their canon.
The song’s brisk velocity makes you wonder why Noel Gallagher doesn’t write in this mode more often, as it still seems to come easy to him; as usual, he runs into trouble when he tries to affix weighty themes to flimsy songs. Two songs in a row talk about “the rapture,” but don’t look here for any insights about the political dimensions of contemporary evangelicalism: While “The Turning” at least tries to back up its vague love-as-religious-experience imagery with some suitably stormy acid-rocked intensity (guided by Starkey’s loose rhythm, a backing choir, and a repeated single-note piano stab), the Noel-sung “Waiting for the Rapture” is just a limpid cock-rock stomp speckled with the usual Beatleisms (“revolution in her head”) and Lennon lifts (specifically, the guitar riff to “Cold Turkey”).
Sadly, this sort of lead-footed blooze seems to be Noel’s default setting now, from the opening “Fat Bottomed Girls” crunch of “Bag It Up” to the awful honky-tonk exercise “(Get Off Your) High Horse Lady”. Bassist Andy Bell likewise contributes the standard-issue “Nature of Reality”, a pub-rock slosh that never delivers on the promise suggested by its “Helter Skelter” intro. Guitarist Gem Archer fares better with his songwriting ration, “To Be Where There’s Life”, which at least hitches its Beatles reference of choice (the wiggy sitar drones of “Tomorrow Never Knows”) onto a more exploratory psych-funk rhythm, coming up with the sort of hypno-pop groover the Verve forgot to write for their recent album.
But while you’d think a band seven albums into its career would outgrow its formative influences (or at least try to), the Gallaghers’ Fab Four embrace feels more suffocating than ever, with Liam’s “I’m Outta Time” pushing Oasis to new depths of Lennon grave-robbing: just when you’re about to forgive the schmaltzy “Free as a Bird”-style arrangement and the cribbed piano chords from “Jealous Guy”, they drop an actual Lennon interview sample in the fade-out (because naming his kid after the guy clearly wasn’t tribute enough). While slavish Beatles idolatry has been Oasis’ stock and trade since day one, the band’s definitive early material at least roughed up the Fabs’ pop classicism with pronounced punk, glam, shoegazer, and Madchester influences. However, over the past 10 years Oasis have gradually curbed those corrupting devices without replacing them with any new aesthetic inspiration. So all we’re left with at the end of Dig Out Your Soul is a promise from Liam to “solider on”– not because the band sounds eager to take on the next generation of Britpop revivalists, but because at this point that’s all Oasis really know how to do.
It’s hard not to be impressed with the way Noel Gallagher has managed to turn Oasis’ apparently permanent state of musical stasis into a matter of class pride. “It’s a working-class thing … I’m not an experimenter,” he recently remarked, as if making interesting music was an unacceptable capitulation to bourgeois mores, like joining a snooty golf club.
I’s a smart bit of doublethink, but there’s something depressing about this not-for-the-likes-of-us attitude, not least the sneaking feeling that Noel Gallagher – clearly a sharp and intelligent man – doesn’t believe a word of it, that it’s bluster designed to hide fear, the knowledge that the one time he did try to experiment, the result was Oasis’s catastrophic 2000 album Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. The millions of records and tickets Oasis sell must come as consolation, but you wonder if Gallagher occasionally steals a rueful glance at his former Battle of Britpop nemesis – wistfully noting, say, the critically acclaimed Mandarin opera – before going back to dutifully promoting the new Oasis album with a single that goes “love is a litany, a magical mystery” and assurances to the press that it sounds like the Beatles.
At least he can console himself that he’s never going to get sued under the Trade Descriptions Act: Oasis’s seventh album arrives bearing Helter Skelter drum fills, a sample from John Lennon’s final radio interview, a coda to The Turning stolen from Dear Prudence and lyrical references to Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth and Ian MacDonald’s Fabs book Revolution in the Head. Complaining about Oasis’s lyrics seems rather like shooting fish in a barrel, or as Gallagher would doubtless have it, shooting fish in a barrel/ with a man called Darryl/ singing a carol/ in American Apparel. Suffice to say there’s a chorus that advises you to “shake your reptile” – Crocodile? Snake? Tortoise? – and that the younger Gallagher brother has developed a weird tic of continually reminding you that you’re listening to a song, as if concerned you might think you’re listening to a lecture on particle physics: “Here’s a song,” he offers on both I’m Outta Time and Ain’t Got Nothin’.
That said, both are among the album’s highlights, the former an effective exercise in shamelessly button-pushing balladry, the latter a two-minute brawl of a song, driven by an off-kilter drum pattern. It’s one of a handful of moments when Dig Out Your Soul works because it does precisely what Noel Gallagher says it doesn’t and experiments, at least a little, with the Oasis formula. The opening Bag It Up offers an impressively grimy, low-rent brand of freakbeat, while Falling Down is, by Oasis’s standards at least, opaque and oddly delicate.
Nevertheless, the other Liam contribution, Soldier On, highlights Dig Out Your Soul’s biggest problem: the mid-tempo plod that has become Oasis’s default rhythmic setting. There’s something trudging and weary about it, redolent of gritted teeth and furrowed brows, of labour rather than effortless inspiration. It’s further compounded by a surfeit of lyrical references to having a go, sticking with it and not giving up – “You’ve got to keep on keeping on”, “My head’s in the clouds but at least I’m trying” – and by the straining mannerisms of Liam’s vocals, which at their most affected sound less like bracingly abrasive sneering than the dogged exertions of a man who’s a little backed up.
Oasis can still occasionally produce songs suggestive of the breezy insouciance that marked their early years – the new single The Shock of the Lightning among them – but more often on Dig Out Your Soul, they sound as though they’re killing themselves trying to come up with something that’ll do. And sometimes what they come up with won’t do at all, as on Gem Archer’s To Be Where There’s Life, a song that signifies its mystical, psychedelic bent by opening with a sitar going sprrrrrroinnnnng. It’s the kind of hackneyed gesture that seems to underline Oasis’s reductive view of music, the nagging suspicion that, far from being steeped in the nuances of classic rock, they’ve only actually heard the Greatest Hits.
For more than a decade, Oasis have continued to sell millions of records while stuck in a musical holding pattern. It’s a perversely impressive feat, partly down to their fans, who, depending on your perspective, are either remarkably loyal or risibly undemanding. But it’s also down to Oasis’ willingness to graft, dutifully touring, never declining to play the hits. Neither masterpiece nor catastrophe, more experimental than Noel would allow but no one’s idea of adventurous, a lot of Dig Out Your Soul sounds like hard work, and not in the latter-day Scott Walker sense of unorthodox or avant garde. Perhaps that’s fitting.
Anyone with a passing familiarity to the all-too-often publicised opinions of Oasis linchpin Noel Gallagher probably won’t need reminding that the human Soundbite Generator’s words are never going to be jostling with Immanuel Kant’s for the attention of students of aesthetics.
From his (admittedly overblown) remarks about Jay-Z’s Glastonbury headline slot earlier this year (“it’s just not right”), to the frankly baffling denigration of Kylie Minogue as a “demonic little idiot”, it’s easy to think that it’s the guitarist’s inclination to spout tabloid-friendly mild controversy, as much as the band’s music, that keeps the Mancunians in the public consciousness.
And while the blustering braggadocio that accompanies every new Oasis album can be filtered out as free PR, the band’s consistently held (and repeatedly stated) stance that music should be easy, rather than interesting, is harder to stomach. Nonetheless, it will have come as a relief to no small number of people that Noel and younger brother Liam—the only two ever-presents now in the band’s ranks—have frequently suggested that their seventh offering will be a return to the energised electricity that made them their initial name.
The band’s following have remained remarkably loyal given the mediocre triptych that preceded Dig Out Your Soul, but you can better there’s not a single fan who wouldn’t love a straightforward duplicate of Definitely, Maybe or Morning Glory.
Unfortunately for them, this isn’t it. Fortunately for them, it by no means expands that triptych to a foursome. Dig Out is more charismatic and better crafted than anything Oasis have done in a long while. Ironically, however, it’s when the band step away from their staple sound and try something a little more interesting that they fire on all (or at least most) cylinders.
It’s perhaps through sheer virtue of the fact that these tracks sound the least like Oasis that they succeed. To expand, single “The Shock of the Lightning” makes a concerted attempt to revive some of the band’s youthful vigour, and ends up sounding a little like a rehash of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, serving as a reminder not just of the impossibility of Oasis fabricating the context in which their debut was such as smash, but also that even that debut had its sub-par moments.
By contrast, the fuzzy blues stomp of “Get Off Your High Horse Lady”, an album high-point, sounds authentic and insouciant, as if it came about from boozy full-bad jam session (though, almost certainly, it didn’t). Likewise, “Falling Down” is pleasantly understated—by the Gallaghers’ standards at least—with its hazy electronics and Noel’s restrained vocals. But attempts at experimentation by way of free-flowing digression from are taken to an unfortunate destination with “To Be Where There’s Life”—Gem Archer’s sole writing credit—which sticks the completely unwarranted twang of sitar to a smoky bass line and a Liam Gallagher vocal that sounds strained and desperately devoid of inspiration. It sounds a little like Liam fronting the Stone Roses, which wouldn’t have seemed like a good idea even in the ‘90s.
Of course, any use of the word ‘experimental’ should be taken in the context of Oasis’s careers as a whole: Dig Out was never going to be some free-form acid-jazz concept album, and the album has many of the Mancunians’ traditional hallmarks, not to mention flaws. One or two tracks, “The Turning” and “Ain’t Got Nothing” the worst culprits, rekindle the stodginess of Don’t Believe the Truth. Lyrically, it’s all as hackneyed as ever, too, all meaningless rhymes and clumsy metaphors (“C’mon, shake your reptile baby”, anyone?).
The lads aren’t doing themselves any favours regarding the Beatles-copyist accusations, either: “Waiting for the Rapture”‘s opening riff echoes that of “Sgt. Pepper”; “I’m Outta Time” samples John Lennon’s final interview; and “The Shock of the Lightning” has a chorus that sings of love as a “magical mystery”.
And so it is that while Dig Out could be much, much worse—it is, by nobody’s standards, at disaster—it is let down by the same flaws that have blighted Oasis before. Simply, it is all too often dreary, trite and unexceptional. The fact that some areas of the press will no doubt trumpet their seventh album as a triumphant return to form is example enough of just how far Oasis’s standards have fallen on the previous four. For those who have happily stuck around this long already Dig Out certainly won’t be the straw that breaks the camel’s back—by all means, it lightens the load quite considerably.
But it does so with the dawning realisation that, 17 years and seven albums in, this is a high point in a career deficient in high points.