Review: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, Chasing Yesterday

The Oasis co-frontman's new album too often regresses from being self-referential to the crime of self-plagiarism.
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The Oasis co-frontman's new album too often regresses from being self-referential to the crime of self-plagiarism.
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opinion by BENJI TAYLOR < @benjitaylormade >

In one of Mad Men’s best scenes, a first season episode titled “The Wheel,” Don Draper makes a persuasive and powerful pitch for an account with Kodak, a prospective major heavy hitting client. Draper — immaculately dressed, impossibly handsome — puts forward a plan to sell Kodak’s product via the notion of nostalgia, which he poetically describes as “the pain from old wound… a twinge in your heart, more potent than memory alone.” He nails the pitch and wins the day for his firm Sterling Cooper, tenderly tugging on the heart strings of the Kodak representatives — and the viewer — by conjuring a vision: a personal vision of a place we all ache to return to.

Noel Gallagher — one-time Oasis mastermind and working class hero — similarly understands the concept of nostalgia, and — like Don Draper — how to harness it to sell products: more than 70 million records worldwide with Oasis alone. That “twinge in your heart, more potent than memory alone” is a tactic the songsmith’s been using since the very beginning: whether writing songs about the invincibility of youth (“Stay Young”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”), the all-consuming euphoria that comes with love (“Slide Away”, “Angel Child”) or fractured relationships and heartache (“Let’s All Make Believe”, “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”).

Noel’s mastery of inducing nostalgia extends beyond simple themes, to draping tracks in self-referential imagery, be it aural or lyrical. This has involved using similar chord progressions and lyrics in his songs, and plays well considering his own limitations as a songwriter. It’s a tactic that works wonders on fans — myself included — who were weaned on a diet of Oasis; the multitudes that learned to strum their first chords while listening to Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story?) Morning Glory. Sadly though, whereas post-Oasis debut album Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds drew directly from the Noel-led Oasis drawing-board without succumbing to laziness, new album Chasing Yesterday too often regresses from being self-referential to the crime of self-plagiarism.

Gallagher’s pre-release talk of creating “space jazz” — about making music that was going to fuck with our minds — turns out, of course, to be hyperbolic nonsense. With the exception of two tracks (the superb sax-assisted grooves of “The Right Stuff,” and “Ballad of the Mighty I”), Chasing Yesterday is emphatically pedestrian, cloned from the same genetic blueprint as his impressive suite of Oasis B-sides, and from the Kinksian grooves that were etched through his debut like the ink in Brighton Rock.

noel gallagher

Album opener “Riverman” spits in the face of talk about making mind-bendingly original music by employing an almost-identical chord structure to “Wonderwall” — a tragic start from a man who has incessantly crowed for two decades about his songwriting prowess. “Lock All The Doors” is effectively a hybrid of two tracks from the early Oasis era: “What’s The Story (Morning Glory)” and “Bring It On Down.” It’s actually a track that Gallagher wrote during the nineties, and the fact it’s used here — several decades later — is emblematic of the laziness that courses through the veins of Chasing Yesterday.

Second single “Ballad of the Mighty I” (featuring The Smiths demigod Johnny Marr) is cut from exactly the same cloth as previous album track “AKA What A Life!”, skirting as close to dance music as Gallagher is ever likely to venture, at least  as long as that ill-fated Amorphous Androgynous collaboration remains locked in the attic. Glam-rock T-Rex pastiche “The Mexican” might sound unlike anything Gallagher has written previously but it’s diabolically bad, the worst piece of music he’s released with or without Oasis — it has no place on this album and was presumably added to ensure the number of tracks included reached into double digits.

Still, his capacity to craft a melody remains potent and unblemished, and he retains the ability to forge gold from melding his not-difficult-to-discern reference points (John Lennon, Ray Davies, Paul McCartney): “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes” is three-and-a-half minutes of stunning, star-scraping melodic brilliance, even if it is a rip-off The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Noel’s own "Wonderwall" B-side “The Masterplan.”

He remains reliant on repetitive two or four-bar idioms, simplistic rhyme structures, and basic rhyming couplets. While he understands and utilizes the power of simplicity in music, on Chasing Yesterday this simplicity often gives way to idleness.  Gallagher might accept his limitations as a songwriter, but that does not make criticism of his art any less relevant, and there’s no excuse for some of the cripplingly lazy lyricism at play here. Rhyming “gun” with “sun” (2011’s “If I had a Gun”: “if I had a gun, I’d shoot a hole into the sun”) is prosaic but is not a crime in itself, but performing the same trick on consecutive albums, with effectively the exact same refrain, is inexcusable (“The Girl With X-Ray Eyes”: “she shot me to the sun, like a bullet from a gun”).

The same-tried and-tested imagery is weaved continuously through the threadwork of the tracks, losing impact with each successive rendering. The image of the sun,  Gallagher’s favorite go-to motif in so many classic Oasis songs (“Slide Away,” “Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” “Cigarettes and Alcohol”) is mentioned in no fewer than six out of the ten tracks on Chasing Yesterday. The idle repetition is sloppy, but all the more frustrating considering that Gallagher conveys incredible wit in interviews — like a potty-mouthed, working man’s Oscar Wilde — whether slating his brother (“he's the angriest man you'll ever meet… like a man with a fork in a world of soup”) or his hilarious diatribes against pretenders to the Oasis throne (“I did drugs for 18 years and I never got that bad as to say, you know what? I think the Kaiser Chiefs are brilliant…”).

That wit and fiercely abrasive spark are never channeled into his songs, though he occasionally comes up with a verse that will make you smile (“The Girl With X-Ray Eyes”: “So she took me by the hand/ We followed clues left in the sand/ As she swallowed space and time,” or “The Dying of the Light”: “I try my best to get there, but I can't afford the bus fare…”). For the most-part though, it’s the same opaque and ambiguous lyrical clichés, patently nonsensical, carelessly littered through the tracks: a myriad different ways of saying absolutely nothing at all. At least his vocals remain pleasant and passable, but he’s far from the strongest singer, and on tracks that invite the comparison — propulsive Oasis-esque numbers like “Lock All The Doors” and “You Know We Can’t Go Back” — it’s easy to pine for the barbed snarl of his younger sibling.

Despite its shortcomings, it's difficult to dislike this LP — largely because of the wistful, nostalgia-inducing melodies. But knowing what he's capable of, we expect better from the former Oasis mastermind. Chasing Yesterday is certainly aptly titled for a set of songs so in thrall to Gallagher’s past. “Echoes that I could hear were all my own,” he sings on the plodding, middle-of-the-road balladry of “The Dying of the Light.” He’s not wrong. C