They borrowed the Beatles’ haircuts and clothes, paraphrased their comments and copied their songs. So it seems fitting that Oasis have also appropriated the Beatles’ greatest dilemma. It was neatly summarised by the poet Philip Larkin: “When you get to the top, there is nowhere to go but down,” he wrote in 1983. “But the Beatles could not get down.”
For six years, Oasis have wrestled with the same problem. Nothing can remove them from the public’s affections, even though their career effectively stalled when they left Knebworth’s stage on August 11 1996, having played to the biggest crowd ever at a British rock concert. They failed to conquer America; they struggled through walkouts, divorces, fights; Noel Gallagher dismissed their albums Be Here Now and Standing on the Shoulder of Giants as “grossly offensive” and “a false start”. And yet Oasis releases still top the charts, regardless of quality, as if by rote. This leads to the nagging suspicion that people now buy their records out of the same sense of civic duty and misplaced nostalgia that packed the Mall during the Jubilee weekend. We’re British, this is what we’re meant to do.
Like Irvine Welsh novels, lads’ mags and New Labour, Oasis seem considerably less fantastic an idea now than in the mid-1990s. People in Britain, however, still want Oasis to be fantastic. And understandably, Oasis still want to be fantastic, too. Bolstered by Heathen Chemistry’s rollicking first single and opening track The Hindu Times, Noel Gallagher has confidently claimed that the album is a return to mid-1990s form. Your optimism lasts exactly three minutes and 46 seconds, after which The Hindu Times fades out and Force of Nature staggers grimly into view. Uniquely for an Oasis track, it evokes the future, but a grim one. It sounds like something recorded by middle-aged men, glittering moment long past, umpteenth reunion gig at Northampton Roadmenders looming. Everything about it is hoary: the dirgy melody, the lumbering glam-rock beat, Noel’s horrible bellowing. If it were any more workmanlike, it would turn up wearing overalls, ask if there’s any chance of a cuppa, then overcharge you for parts and labour.
Their last two albums have seen Oasis operating on reserve power, numbed by cocaine-addled hubris on Be Here Now, distracted by intra-band upheavals on Standing on the Shoulders. Heathen Chemistry is worse, precisely because it sounds like Oasis trying really hard. It is impossible to hear Force of Nature or guitarist Gem Archer’s fearful sub-Stooges thrash Hung in a Bad Place without picturing a band puffing and straining, struggling to locate whatever it was that made them great in the first place.
The more desperately they search, the colder they get. In the past, Noel Gallagher brazenly pinched from “classic” sources: the Beatles, the Kinks, T Rex. The results were audacious songs that assaulted the collective memory, cockily posing the question: remember when rock music used to be this good? Here, he is reduced to stealing from himself. Stop Crying Your Heart Out lifts its melody from Definitely Maybe’s Slide Away and hook from Don’t Look Back in Anger. The question it poses is not cocky, just depressing: remember when we used to be this good?
As a lyricist, Gallagher has always been more David Coleman than David Bowie, frequently giving the impression that English is his second language. Gallagherballs litter Oasis’s back catalogue (“Slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball”, “Life is precocious in a most peculiar way”), and Heathen Chemistry has plenty: “Let me hear you smile,” demands (Probably) All in the Mind. But it also has Little by Little, knuckle-gnawing for different reasons. Part hideous state-of-the-nation address, part GCSE poetry project, it opens with the scarcely believable line, “We, the people, fight for our existence”, and ends with Gallagher pondering: “Why am I really here?” It sounds less like an existential crisis than a set-up in search of a punchline.
Improbably, nascent songwriter Liam Gallagher provides Heathen Chemistry’s few charming moments. Songbird is slender but pretty. Born on a Different Cloud is Lennon-by-numbers, plagued by a shudder-inducing inkling that the “clever, classless and free” individual in the lyrics is Liam Gallagher. Better Man, however, is great. Avoiding the standard Oasis cliches, its swaggering guitars, sneering vocal and rumbling breakbeat recall nothing so much as the Stone Roses’ Drivin’ South.
The more cynical among you may suggest that things have gone desperately awry when the best song Oasis can come up with bears comparison not to I Am the Resurrection but a track from the Stone Roses’ rubbish second album. The more cynical among you would be right. There is a finality about Heathen Chemistry, the band’s third hopeless attempt in a row. The last time Oasis released a decent album, John Major was PM, Nick Leeson was bringing down Barings Bank and Robson and Jerome were number one. Oasis got to the top and, with Heathen Chemistry, they have finally got down. As it plays, however, you can’t help thinking: there has to be a more dignified route than this.
It says something about the quality of Oasis’s first two albums, that even after the release of Be Here Now, and Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, this record was still hotly anticipated, especially as it followed changes in the band’s line-up, leading many people to think that Oasis might change their approach, and possibly return to the fresh-sounding glory days of earlier in their career. Although there is the odd song on here that stands up favourably to anything that Oasis have ever recorded, it’s fair to say that by and large this is not the case, with this album not being the one that Oasis fans were praying for. Mercifully though, the band seem to have generally put the bloated nature of Be Here Now behind them, with most songs on here being of a reasonable length (Better Man is not actually 38 minutes long, but merely plays on, despite the song ending a fraction of the way into the track).
1. The Hindu Times. Based on this song, very cleverly put at the start of the album, you would imagine that you were in for the best Oasis album since 1995. It’s by far and away their best song since (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? with it being built around a classic riff by Noel Gallagher, while Liam has his trademark arrogance back in his vocals, adding the air of menace that propelled Oasis into mega-stardom. Even the lyrics, such as “‘Cos God gimme soul in your rock’n’roll (babe)”, are drawing on one of their favourite topics; that of good old fashioned rock and roll. An obvious high point of the album, and a great Oasis song, this gets 5/5.
2. Force Of Nature. The brilliance of the opening track here makes this even worse than it already is. Featuring a lead vocal from Noel Gallagher, there is only one way to describe this, and that’s an uninspired dirge, with what sounds like Noel complaining about a wife/lover (he denies it’s about his ex-wife, Meg Matthews). Lyrics such as, “You’re smoking all my stash, you’re burning all my cash” are deeply uninspired as well, while the instruments pound away in the background, without really adding anything to the song, or giving it a sense of purpose. The kind of song that a pub rock covers band would put low down on their wish list of songs to rehearse, this gets 1.5/5.
3. Hung In A Bad Place. This is the only song on here that was written by Gem Archer, and is another Liam lead vocal set over guitar riffing that would be better were it not for the occasional discordant blast, that really lowers the tone of the song. The song itself is similar to something likeHello, but again, it just doesn’t have the energy that was so important to Oasis, and indeed to bands similar to them. It’s got a good guitar solo that raises the level of the song, but that apart, this is another Oasis song that isn’t really up to much. 3/5.
4. Stop Crying Your Heart Out. This song always reminds me of England’s exit from the 2002 Football World Cup, as it was seized upon as an anthem by all the main TV channels. From that point of view it does its job well: it’s Oasis tapping into the national consciousness again, but that aside, this doesn’t really rise to the levels of their previous ballads. Lyrically, again, it’s somewhat uninspired (“Take what you need, be on your way, and stop crying your heart out”), although it’s a pleasant enough song to listen to, with it’s main weakness being that nothing much happens in it, combined with the fact that it lacks the majesty of their best ballads, such as Champagne Supernova, in spite of the string arrangements. 3.5/5.
5. Songbird. This is a definite contender for most bizarre Oasis song ever. It’s also one of the best moments on the album. Written by Liam Gallagher, it’s a breezy, acoustic guitar led track, with him in strangely reflective mood, and even singing, rather than resorting to his trademark vocals. Dare I say it, but it’s actually a rather beautiful love song, that’s made even more remarkable, and therefore better, by the fact that it’s so short. The keyboards in the background give more layering as well, and improve the mood of the song. 4.
6. Little By Little. This was a single taken from the album, and features Noel Gallagher on lead vocals, in what can only really be described as a power ballad. Although it’s another of the better songs on here, the lyrics let it down again, with the final bellows of “Why am I really here”, sounding strangely like Thom Yorke doing a Britrock style pastiche of his band’s earlier days. As with many Oasis songs, his guitar work is a definite quality of the song, again raising the standard of the music. 4/5.
7. A Quick Peep. Andy Bell’s only composition that made it onto the album, this is a purely instrumental, semi-psychedelic piece, that somehow contrives to be both bland and somewhat discordant at the same time, and really should have been left off the album. Too short to achieve much, this nevertheless sticks in the listener’s throat, due to the combination of tribal drumming, and aimless guitar work. 1/5.
8. (Probably) All In The Mind. The piano and spoken word intro to this sounds strangely like it could have been on The Dark Side Of The Moon, and almost sounded good on it. Then Liam’s vocals come in, and the song turns into a disaster. Honestly, I’m trying to find a redeeming feature about this song, but I just can’t. Liam’s vocals sound like he’s bored and not really trying, and the backing music, although well produced, sounds like nothing more than a basic outtake of what Oasis used to produce. 1/5.
9. She Is Love. Although it’s got competition, this is probably my single least favourite song on the album. It’s basically Oasis attempting to do a folksy acoustic guitar led ballad, with some of the most hideously cliched lyrics imaginable: “She is love, and I believe her when she speaks”. The synthesised backing music, and clapping beat later in the song, makes this a positive embarrassment when put next to their earlier music, but even by the standards of this album, it’s terrible. 1/5.
10. Born On A Different Cloud. Well, compared to the three previous songs, this is a marginal improvement, although it suffers from Be Here Now syndrome, of being far too long, repetitive, and aimless to begin with. It’s Oasis doing melancholy, which actually works better than might be imagined, particularly with Liam Gallagher on vocals, but it’s noticeably flagging before the 3 minute mark of the song is reached, especially as the vocals seem a bit too low in the mix, and buried under some of the guitars. This could possibly have been quite a good song, if only it had just been shortened, but due to the fact that it’s quite frankly boring, this gets 1.5/5.
11. Better Man. Well, credit where credit’s due, and this is actually a good album closer. The edgy guitars, combined with Liam’s snarling “Yeah yeah” vocals, make this the second best rock song on here, behind The Hindu Times, and again, the key to this is the menacing, arrogant, laddish attitude that Oasis at their best give off. They were never the most talented musicians, but one thing they had in huge amounts was attitude, which made the Gallagher brothers in particular into icons. It’s just such a shame that this attitude, which is so evident on this song, couldn’t be bottled up, and used over the whole of this album. One thing that really annoys me here though is the fact that from 4:20 to 33:13, absolutely nothing happens, and even then, the hidden track isn’t really worth the wait, as it’s just an instrumental, which contributes nothing to the album. 3.5/5.
As you can tell, I don’t believe this album is quite frankly much good, and definitely ranks as one of Oasis’s worst efforts, probably along with Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants. The band are currently working on their sixth album, but another record like this might finally drive away their last remaining devotees, as the band have been struggling for too long now, and are putting out records that are nowhere near the standard of their earlier work. The Gallagher brothers are still household names, showing probably the support that the band still attracts from the general public, but realistically, the group are now approaching the last chance saloon, as a result of their music, internal struggles, and appalling publicity. This album shows though that, sad as it may be, the Oasis that strode over the British music scene for a period in the mid-1990s may be well and truly dead.