In 1995, Oasis’ sophomore album, (What’s the Story), Morning Glory not only became one of the biggest records of all time in the band’s home country of the United Kingdom, but it also successfully crossed the Atlantic and produced two legitimate hits in the United States.
This is a feat that, even with the advance of technology and the internet, is rarely achieved to this day for many bands from Europe. After the massive success of singles like “Wonderwall,” “Champagne Supernova,” “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and “Some Might Say,” and riding a wave of cocaine and sonic noise, the band returned two years later with Be Here Now in 1997. While it was initially praised as the best album since Sgt. Pepper’s, Be Here Now was a bloated, loud, obnoxious mess of an album that clocked in at a clunky, and somehow almost insulting 72 minutes, and has been blamed in large part for the death of Brit-Pop. A musical era that had ruled Britain for more than four years had abruptly come to an end.
Oasis largely disappeared for the last part of the decade they had once ruled with an iron fist. Facing constant rumors of their break up, publicity from harsh tabloids, and the eventual negative reaction of their latest release, a break was certainly in the offing. As the millennium rang in, and it became time to release a follow up, expectations were still high for the band to see how they would adapt to the changing musical landscape that they had once unquestionably stood on top of.
As it turns out, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, their fourth release, plays through like the sound of a band beginning to change its ways, albeit slowly. Unlike its predecessor, which had seven long songs, only three of the songs on this album break or come close to six minutes, and the majority fall within the high four minute range, bringing the total album length to a reasonable, but still long 52 minutes.
For many die-hard Oasis fans, the album features some of the best songs that the band had made: “Go Let It Out” features a rolling bass line that triumphantly picks the song off its feet, “Who Feels Love” is a George Harrison-esque, bongo infused zone out that successfully combines melody with experimentation, and “Where Did It All Go Wrong” is a classic anthem sung by Noel Gallagher that does not have the lyrical mastery of some of their previous anthems, but gets the job done anyways.
Finally, “Let’s All Make Believe.” a bonus track on the album, like many of Oasis’ b-sides, should have been included on the main release, and gives the listener a taste of Oasis combining their accumulated strengths, instrumental simplicity and experimentation, and a great melody.
However, for every step forward on this album, there is a step backwards. The album suffers from poor tracking, the most notorious example being “Sunday Morning Call,” which sounds like a subtle rewrite of “Where Did It All Go Wrong,” and happens to follow it in the track listing, essentially stalling the listener and dragging the album on.
Both “Roll It Over” and “Little James” have interesting sounds to them, playing with echoing guitars and affected choirs, but the former suffers from repetition problems, and the latter suffers from terrible lyrics. And while the sonic noise of Be Here Now is almost completely absent from this release, “Gas Panic” brings some of those terrible memories back.
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants is a solid effort that absolutely a step up from the cocaine romp that was Be Here Now, but it is in no way anywhere close to the sheer brilliance of their first two albums. It features some mild experimentation in the musical arrangements, some solid and distortion free melodies and some decent anthems, but in the end, it suffers from many of the same problems (tracklisting, excess track length, some truly terrible lyrics), that Be Here Now exemplified.
Believe it or not, Noel Gallagher was humbled by the misfire that was 1997’s Be Here Now. Of course, it wasn’t just the record that brought Britain’s pop kings down to size. Britpop was really and truly over by 1997. That was the year of OK Computer, an album that raised the bar for every band in the UK, and like it or not pop meisters like Gallagher were hopelessly out of fashion. Even The Verve’s classical pilfering on Urban Hymns was more in tune with the times than Oasis’ set-on-10-on-the-amps, all-out rock anthems.
Noel Gallagher attempts to right the ship on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants by diversifying Oasis’ sound and soaking up some contemporary influences from the Beta Band to the Chemical Brothers. The result is a much darker-sounding effort and the throw-everything-into-the-mix and make-it-loud-as-you-can approach has been toned down… a bit, though not unfortunately on “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is,” an obvious Oasis single.
Still, the instrumentation is broader and actual restraint has been used in many of the arrangements, where in 1997 there would have been none. And restraint doesn’t just turn up in the “orchestration,” but also in the 47-minute length of the record—a welcome relief from the over-eagerness on Be Here Now to fill every last byte of the CD with every last sound squiggling out of an amplifier on Abbey Road.
As much time was not spent on the lyrics. Just look to the lead-off single “Go Let It Out,” whose patently obvious chorus “Go let it out / Go let it in” is more of the “moon in June quality of writing Gallagher often seems only to content to lob our way. But the worst of the lot, bar none, is brother Liam’s first songwriting attempt, “Little James,” an ode to his son. “Hey Jude” it is not—the lyrics are simplistic and cloying and the “na, na, na” choruses at the end are embarrassingly Beatle-esque (“Hey Jude” again).
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants kicks off with a sample-heavy instrumental (“Fucking in the Bushes”) that shows Noel’s dalliances with the Chemical Brothers have left their mark. But Noel hasn’t gone dance on us, not really. The song has the Monterey Pop Festival written all over it, from the Hendrix-like rippling lead guitar to the “ah, ah, ah, ah” choruses backed by a descending organ. The drums and rhythm have a bit of 1997/98 Big Beat to them and the samples sounds similar to the type used by Primal Scream in the early 1990s.
“Who Feels Love?” is a mid-tempo, laid-back, vaguely-Eastern, psychedelic affair that sounds, after several listenings, like the best Standing has to offer, as does the closer “Roll It Over” whose quietly building crescendos show Gallagher developing into a defter composer/arranger as each day goes by. “Gas Panic!” is another slow-grinder that oddly sounds a bit like what the Stone Roses may have sounded like today if they had held it together after Second Coming.
I guess since big brother indulged little brother and allowed “Little James” to make the cut, he felt he should get more than the requisite single lead singing track on the record. So Noel’s less brilliantly bombastic, but ultimately more affecting vocals power “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” and the lazy-in-the-sun “Sunday Morning Call.”
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants isn’t the near-masterpiece the band needs to resurrect their world-conquering level of stardom and near total omnipresence in the UK, nor is it the Zeitgeist soundtrack that was (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995) or the divine slab of ballsy rock that was Definitely Maybe (1994). But it is a record that works better and better with repeated listens, a departure from the deliverance of immediate gratification that we have been taught to expect from Oasis.
It may well be a bridge to the next phase of Oasis’ career—away from the stadiums and the touring grind, just like their heroes the Beatles, and into the comfy studio confines where Noel Gallagher’s considerable pop smarts will grow and he can create the psychedelic masterpiece he’s fully capable of producing.