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Album Review: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - 'Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds'

The Chief adjusts to being commander of no man but himself on a masterfully relaxed solo debut

Noel Gallagher Track By Track (Part One)
Video: Noel Gallagher Track By Track (Part One)
Pic: Dean Chalkley/NME
  • Release Date 17 Oct, 2011
  • Producer Noel Gallagher and Dave Sardy
  • Record Label Sour Mash
  • Fact High Flying Birds is a reference to a Jefferson Airplane track
8 / 10
Is Noel Gallagher fucked? Less than 100 days since his comeback press conference and he’s been abandoned by Radio 1 (too old), failed to really set the charts alight with any of his new tunes and seen the debut performance with his High Flying Birds on Italian TV lambasted by Oasis fans who said he looked too nervous to pull off being a frontman (sample YouTube comment: “Come on Noel! You’ll get used to it!”).

Noel’s admitted from the off, of course, that the idea of standing centrestage without little bro around to lap up the attention has left him biting his fingernails. But actually hearing him say that is really weird. Why? Because he’s the most brash, outspoken, bolshy and bitchy musician – no, personality – of the last 20 years. To have the guy come across as vulnerable just doesn’t sit right. And that’s exactly what makes this album so crucial, because for the first time since ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ in 2005, Noel Gallagher actually has something to prove to people. He’ll always have ‘Wonderwall’ to bang his head against, sure, but to start your post-Oasis career with a shitter of a solo album? That’s something that’s definitely not in the manuscript.

But let’s not be prissy here. You’ll have already seen the album’s mark at the end of this review. It’s no monstrosity, no major fuck-up, and no minor fuck-up either. On the contrary, it’s rather brilliant in places. Take the second track, ‘Dream On’. Noel says it’s “throwaway”, which doesn’t do it any favours. It’s a key song here because it’s so goofy. It’s carefree and catchy as hell; catchy the same way ‘Telegram Sam’, ‘Hotel Yorba’ or – hah! – ‘She’s Electric’ were. There’s a great, moronic line in it about all the kids drinking up their lemonade, and it proves that away from the arched-eyebrow seriousness of the past decade (‘Falling Down’, ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’, ‘Little By Little’), Noel can still bash out a three-minute guitar-pop gem that sounds at once wonky, blithe and brilliantly stupid. And for a 44-year-old father of three, that’s pretty impressive.

It also takes precisely 52 seconds to get to the chorus, which as any burger-flippin’, jukebox-owning hick from 1950s America will tell you, is the OPTIMUM time in pop to get the masses singing along. Any longer and you’ve lost them. I raise this point for a reason, because structurally Noel’s reined everything in on these 10 tracks. Gone are the days of the three-minute intro (apart from opening track ‘Everybody’s On The Run’, everything here gets down to business within about 20 seconds), and gone are the maddeningly repetitive guitar solos and endless outros.

In fact this is probably the first Noel album since ‘…Morning Glory?’ where you feel the songs never really outstay their welcome, and it’s all the better for it. Weller played the same trick on 2010’s ‘Wake Up The Nation’ (where many of the songs clocked in at around two minutes), and while there’s nothing as brash’n’breezy as that here, it’s still an absolute joy to listen to the songs, think to yourself, ‘THIS is where the vocals need to start’, and then hear Noel’s voice come in. Simple, but effective.

Elsewhere, you’ll have already heard ‘The Death Of You And Me’, which along with ‘If I Had A Gun…’ is the best thing on here. It’s got the much-touted brass section wheezing away at the side (you’d hope Noel takes them on tour), and marks a highpoint of Side A. Just about, that is, because the aforementioned ‘…Gun…’ trumps it. Ever since that scraggy soundcheck bootleg appeared online it’s stood out as something special, so you’ve gotta give its creator credit for fully realising its potential in the studio.

Its chords, capo placing and canter-pace may be nicked from The Book Of Wonderwall, but it’s a far more contemplative piece overall, even sounding faintly glam when the drums and distortion kick in. The yearning, lovelorn chorus of, “Excuse me if I spoke too soon/My eyes have always followed you around the room” is one of the prettiest things Noel’s ever come up with, and it rightfully feels like the album’s centrepiece. By the time the ending saunters in (with a guitar line pinched from ‘Fade Away’), he may as well be off buying guitar-shaped beds and waiting for Chris Martin to cover it at Glasto.

Of course, ‘Stop The Clocks’ and ‘(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine’, both of which have been online in demo form for years, are the two that sound the most Oasis-like. How could they not? The former – now with added choir and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’-esque guitar solo (the only one on the record, incidentally) – features a chorus dug straight outta the soul of Noddy Holder’s platform boots, while album closer ‘Stop The Clocks’ is an altogether more simplistic muse on what happens when you die (it’s uplifting rather than depressing, because it’s Noel). But then, you already know what they’re like, ’cos you’ve heard them both before.

Their inclusion here is slightly perplexing because of that. Noel says it’s because they’re too good to fall by the wayside, and that they act as a final goodbye to his Oasis years… and you can kind of see his point. But he needs to stick to his guns, because the genuine newbies here (like ‘AKA…What A Life!’ and ‘AKA…Broken Arrow’) show he’s still got enough chops in him to carry off being solo without surviving off his former glories. Now, you want him to run with the idea of change and end up god knows where.

The big question, of course, is does he miss Liam? And yeah, he does at times. Take opener ‘Everybody’s On The Run’. It’s a brilliant song. It’s got a 100-piece Abbey Road choir on it and would sound great bouncing off the walls of Wembley Stadium. But it’s built for Liam Gallagher to wrap his lungs around. Without him, it’s subbed to merely ‘great’ status, and the lingering thought of what it’d be like with its rightful singer in place is tantalisingly frustrating.

They need each other, everyone knows that. But this is a redundant point, as well as a minor quibble. We all know where Noel and Liam stand at present, and things aren’t gonna change between them for at least another album apiece. What Noel’s done on ‘…High Flying Birds’ is test the water, keep the good ship from listing and hand over a collection of tracks of which the best can stand proudly alongside ‘The Importance Of Being Idle ’. Fuck radio, fuck the charts and fuck nerves. Noel’s still got it. Only a fool would write him off.

Matt Wilkinson

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