When artists break free from the bands that have always defined them to take up solo careers, some celebrate their emancipation with radical musical departures. Others adhere to the old group's sound as much as possible, either out of fear, habit, or a desire to prove once and for all that they were the brains of the band.
Noel Gallagher goes the latter route on Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, which almost sounds more like Oasis than Oasis did -- the sole difference being that it's him singing, not embattled brother Liam.
It's as if Noel wanted to establish that Oasis would've fared just fine with him as frontman.
It's a point almost worth proving. Noel is close to a dead ringer, vocally, for his sibling, so Oasis fans may feel as if not much has changed, at least in the studio. And it must feel as liberating for Noel to get to sing his own songs as it was for Pete Townshend when he started making solo records.
But the seamless transition doesn't really speak well for the individuality his songs require.
And Noel does have just a wee bit less personality. With Liam, you always sensed a slight sneer at work, even when he was singing his brother's most romantic songs. Now, Noel's slightly blander tone removes any such ironic distance, but points up how banal his lyrics can be, shorn of the attitude his bro brought to the table.
Almost all of High Flying Birds (which shares its name with the group Gallagher assembled) persists in the anthemia, pretty, ploddingly mid-tempo mode that Oasis struck UK gold with and mined to the end. Less than midway through the opening track, Everybody's on the Run, a choir and strings have kicked in, to nice but not particularly transformative effect.
Other predictably Beatles-esque touches abound on this handsomely mounted but unexciting effort. You get trumpet squalls, calliope sounds, and Mellotron-ish keyboards in The Death of You and Me, which, ominous title aside, turns out to be Penny Lane-level jaunty.
The uncharacteristically speedy AKA… What a Life, takes its inspiration from Paul McCartney's solo career -- specifically, Nineteen Ninety Five, with its fast beat and nervously quick piano. The problem is, Macca always came up with a chorus, whereas Gallagher just repeats What a life four times as his refrain, which makes the initially promising tune drag.
If you buy the deluxe edition, you'll get the most interesting hybrid of styles with the bonus track The Good Rebel, which takes Ringo's drumbeat from Rain and weds it to an old-school R.E.M.-style chorus. (The fact that Gallagher keeps singing Rain, like rain… don't care for the sunshine is probably no coincidental homage.)
Unfortunately, the record is rife with provocative titles that give no indication of the utterly ordinary songs within.
For instance, you might hope that If I Had a Gun is about what Noel would do to Liam if England had more lax weapons laws.
But no. If I had a gun, I'd shoot a whole into the sun, and love would burn this city down for you, Gallagher sings. Let me fly you to the moon, he adds, probably not thinking too hard about what would have happened to the rest of the solar system after he'd destroyed the sun and Earth to amuse his girl.
Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks does prove to be Gallagher's lone attempt at social commentary, and one that makes you happy he usually expends his efforts on love songs, however mixed the metaphors.
For real urgency, only one song, (Stranded on) The Wrong Beach, locks into an interesting guitar groove. All else is pleasant and wistful and… well, Oasis-nostalgic. Which maybe was too low a bar for Gallagher to set for himself, given how wan almost everyone agrees the last few Oasis albums were.
High Flying Birds is better than those, but better to wait for his next album, which apparently has already been recorded, with an entirely different group of musicians and an entirely different electronic vibe.
That may be the one to prove whether Gallagher can get out of his lovely rut or will forever be stuck being the overly serious person's Rutles.