Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Chasing Yesterday
Rating: 4/7 stars
Noel Gallagher hasn’t been a member of Oasis since the seminal Britpop band disbanded in 2009; and yet it’s nearly impossible to separate the singer-songwriter’s career from that of his former band. You can’t talk about one without talking about the other.
It’s almost more difficult to separate Noel from his former band mate and younger brother Liam, Oasis’s charismatic frontman. The two have a kind of symbiotic relationship; they both largely despise one another, and yet together they formed the foundation of the most important British rock band of the 1990s. If you have a conversation about either of them, you will inevitable circle back to the band that propelled them to superstardom.
Looking at the Gallagher brother’s respective solo careers, it becomes entirely evident what their respective roles in Oasis were.
Noel was the songwriter extraordinaire, a deceptively capable guitar player, and the definition of “too cool”. He’s a master of songcraft. That much was already clear. He’s also a massive prick. That much was also apparent.
Liam was the swaggering frontman, all nasally vocals and “fuck ’em” personality. His onstage presence would’ve been entirely negligible if it weren’t so magnetic. His songwriting, while not nearly as prominent during Oasis’s peak, improved near the end of their career. His musical wheelhouse is straightforward, piss and vinegar rock and roll. He, too, is a massive prick. Again, all of these things were already evident.
The divide between the two of them is thrown into even sharper relief when you consider their solo projects. Liam’s post-Oasis group, Beady Eye, eschews nuanced songwriting in favor of balls to the wall rock bombast. They have released two albums, both of which received lukewarm reviews.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds have also released two albums. On the first, 2011’s eponymous debut, the elder Gallagher took the opposite direction of his brother. The songs were nuanced and well-crafted, every minute detail and brass flourish perfectly placed. While Beady Eye cranked their amps and extended their middle fingers, Noel’s group came across as almost too calculated, bordering on cerebral. It was all too evident that, going forward, Noel would have to expand his sonic pallet beyond what that debut album showed.
With Chasing Yesterday, released just last week, Gallagher attempts to expand and refine that pallet. While it’s not nearly as amped up as Liam’s efforts, Noel ups the temp and aggression just enough to make this album a refreshing change of pace from his debut.
Of course, this isn’t entirely apparent on the album’s opening track, “Riverman”. Instead of exploding out of the gate, “Riverman” opens the record on an ominous, mid-tempo groove. First thing’s first: this band is tight as hell. They’re locked in. And they’re stretching out. “Riverman” features a space-y, Floyd-ish vibe, down to the jazzy keyboard lines, jammy guitar solo, and honking saxophone featured throughout. It’s a great opening track, introducing us to one half of the album’s personality.
It isn’t until the album’s second track, though, that things really explode. Despite “In the Heat of the Moment’s” inherent mid-temponess, this song struts. It swaggers with the confidence of someone who’s written some of the best songs of the last 20 years, someone who can sit back and say, “Yeah, I know this song isn’t the fastest or the most amped-up, but it’s still pretty badass”. The song also shows just how much Noel’s voice has improved over the last twenty years. Where Liam’s once proud nasal growl has deteriorated into a hoarse raspiness, Noel’s voice has taken on a profoundly confident, soaring quality. “In the Heat of the Moment” serves as a showcase for his most underrated tool.
“Lock All the Doors” pushes the throttle down even more, albeit again with attitude in lieu of tempo. Howling feedback leads directly into a charge of electric guitar while the rhythm section locks in against Noel’s voice. A jarring guitar solo punctuates the track before heading back into the final chorus. It’s over in a flash, like it never happened. Rock and roll. “The Mexican”, meanwhile, sounds like something out of the Marc Bolan/T. Rex glam rock playbook. Another too-cool-for-school riff scratches against Gallagher’s double-tracked vocals as he sings “They say that you need love like a kid needs crack/I got a feeling of what you are and it’s kinda holding me back”. Maybe not the best lyric, but the guy’s been doing this for 20 years. In any case, the song plods through on cool factor alone, featuring a guitar solo that sounds like a single phrase from an SRV solo stuck on repeat. Pretty cool.
Gallagher hasn’t entirely traded in his perfect songcraft for rock n’ roll, however. “The Dying of the Light” could’ve easily been on the High Flying Birds debut, its incessant keyboard tones and chiming guitars creating an air of melancholy as Gallagher protests “I was told the streets were made of gold/and there’d be no time for getting old when we were young”. He’s indignant, but he’s weary and he’s tired and goddamnit, “Man it makes me wanna cry.”
“The Right Stuff” drives along on a pulsating drone, punctuated by staccato horn blasts, tremolo guitar, and more brilliant bass-and-drum interplay. The rhythm section is inarguably the unsung hero of this record, and nowhere is this more apparent than on “The Right Stuff”. It overshadows the wonked out sax and wah-wah guitar solos. The cymbals splash and the bass pops and drives, and everything is great in this quasi-psychedelic march of a song.
And yet, for all the progress Noel’s solo act has made since the debut, it still oftentimes comes across as too well-constructed. Say what you want about Liam and Beady Eye’s uneven pair of records, they were at least fun and didn’t seem to care too much about songcraft or critics or anything of the kind. They were just there to rock, and if you liked it then great, come along for the ride. But Noel seems like he really has to try to get into that kind of headspace. It’s encouraging and respectable that he’s tried to push himself into another zone, but the results, particularly on the tracks I didn’t mention, are uneven.
Noel is still arguably one of the greatest songwriters of the last two decades. You don’t write “Live Forever” or “Wonderwall” or “Champagne Supernova” and get left out of that conversation. And he’s certainly not coasting. The last couple Oasis albums were two of the best records they’d done since 1997’s bloated, coked-out Be Here Now. But those albums also featured strong writing efforts from Liam and other members. It was far more of a group effort. And Noel’s High Flying Birds albums have been solid too, Chasing Yesterday especially. But more than anything, Chasing Yesterday serves as a reminder that, no matter how solid and craftsman-like the songwriting, no matter how pristine the production (and the production here is outstanding), no matter how hard he tries to distance himself from his past, Noel Gallagher will always be one half of the greatest British band of the last 20 years, and he will always be compared to his brother. For better or for worse. Maybe (*HOT TAKE ALERT*) it’s time for Noel to stop chasing yesterday and just embrace it.