Noel Gallagher was the man who wrote virtually all the songs for Oasis, and sang a lot of the best ones. And even though the rest of the band took Liam’s side during the contentious breakup, going off to form Beady Eye, Noel’s solo debut has been the one that’s caused the highest levels of anticipation. Even though Oasis fell the fuck off back when Bill Clinton was still in office, Noel always walked an interesting line between the lager-swilling lunkhead charm of his brother and the adventurous artistic soul of someone who could probably be doing better things if he wasn’t dragging these lager-swilling lunkheads with him. Noel was the one who was making transcendent rave-psych anthems with the Chemical Brothers while the rest of his band was doing who knows what. And every one of the past few turgid Oasis albums had at least a few flashes of the band’s former greatness, so Noel obviously had some gas left in the tank. And now that he’s finally made an album all on his own, we have some idea what he’s capable post-Oasis. But we still don’t have a complete image, because Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is not really a complete album. It’s a study of an artist in transition, one who hasn’t quite settled on a direction yet. It has moments, but it’s not the flash of brilliance that Noel seems like he should be able to generate on his own.
First, the good: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is an album with ideas — more ideas, I’d argue, than any Oasis album since Be Here Now. “Dream On” and a few other tracks have barrelhouse piano and New Orleans-style jazz horns, not exactly the first things I would’ve expected from this guy. “Aka… What A Life” has a rhythmic piano-driven pulse that reminds me a bit of those Chemical Brothers collabs. Glam-rock stomp-clap beats show up on “(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach,” and “Stop The Clocks” is all expansive orchestral swell. Throughout the album, Noel seems to be working on developing a lighter, more playful variant on that old Oasis chug. It sounds like this Beatles fan is finally taking his stab at quasi-experimental late-Beatles brain-swirl, and it also carries echoes of a few more decades of quirky British psych; I hear a lot of XTC on this thing, for instance. Noel’s finally been given a chance to stretch out with this album, and he’s taking it. That’s admirable.
But it’s not quite there yet. Even the most boring Oasis albums had moments of anthemic overdrive, the sort of choruses that could bring vast British soccer fields to their feet. High Flying Birds has one moment like that: album-closer “Stop The Clocks,” which builds to a crashing catharsis. But Noel used to be able to dish out the big melodies that reverberate in your skull for days, and those are mostly absent here. The songs feel like sketches. They’re gilded, elaborately orchestrated sketches, but they’re sketches nonetheless. When he tries out social commentary, as on “Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks,” it’s a total mess. And though his voice is a fine thing, the bleary swagger that Liam brought is sadly missed. These seem like deficiencies that can be corrected as Noel continues to grow into his own as a solo artist. But then again, he’s not getting any younger or any hungrier.
Still, Noel remains a restless soul, and he’s still plenty capable of greatness. His next project, which he’s planning to release soon, is a full album with the Amorphous Androgynous– previously known as the ambient-techno project the Future Sound Of London. That’s a bold move, and one that could turn out magical. With the Chemical Brothers, Gallagher showed that he knew how to fuse his songwriting gifts with thunderous electronic beats. And if he successfully turns those toward the FSOL’s deep bassed-out haze, he could finally move his legacy past Oasis, at least until the inevitable reunion. High Flying Birds isn’t the album that’s going to move the conversation away from his old band, but it’s a compelling first attempt. He’s earned some more time, anyway.