The past few months have been a good time to be an Oasis fan; while a legitimate reunion from the Mancunian icons seem less and less likely with every passing week – thanks in part to the Gallagher brothers’ famously acid tongues being perpetually pointed at one another – 2017 has seen both Noel and Liam’s solo careers reach new strides, resulting in some the most enjoyable music either has put their name to in years.
But while Liam Gallagher’s recent solo debut ‘As You Were’ was a triumph precisely because it played to his strengths – being jammed full of stomping, 60s-indebted rock and roll numbers and organic ballads – the third outing from Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, ‘Who Built the Moon?’, hits a home run for the opposite reason.
Building on the psychedelic flirtations that have always been hiding in the background of his later work, much of the album eschews his trademark down-to-earth guitar anthems for layered, Flaming Lips-type orchestration and hazy psychedelia, resulting in something resembling ‘Dig Out Your Soul’s nimbler, hipper cousin, and the first Gallagher-helmed record to be more about the mood than stadium-ready choruses.
The change in tact can be heard immediately in the cinematic, mostly instrumental opener ‘Fort Knox’, which kicks off with siren wail keyboards before a driving, Fatboy Slim-esque backbeat and jerky, off-kilter bassline lock into the song’s hypnotic groove. Based around a chorus of “hey hey hey” chants and Gallagher’s ghostly interjections of “I keep holding out, holding on”, it’s a radical, Kanye West-style departure for a man renowned for standard (if undeniably effective) meat-and-potatoes Britpop; the only way you could have imagined him coming up with something in this vein previously if he’d been sent out into the desert to trip balls for forty days and forty nights whilst writing ‘Fuckin’ in the Bushes’.
The surprises continue on the second track, the joyous, brassy lead single ‘Holy Mountain’, which sees The Chief regain the spring in his step and implore the listener to “get out of the doldrums, baby”. Featuring an infectious tin whistle sample and rapid-fire, deadpan vocal that recalls Justin Young of The Vaccines, the song has a knowingly throwaway quality that’s refreshing to hear after the heaviness of his previous few singles. Like many songs on the album, the vocals are also pushed further back in the mix, allowing the dense production and driving bottom end to take centre stage.
The enjoyable, if slightly repetitive, soul pastiche ‘Keep on Reaching’ follows, making liberal use of Gallagher’s well-worn falsetto, as well as a brass section and female gospel choir. Elsewhere, the futuristic ‘It’s a Beautiful World’ seems to take influence from Gallagher’s recent tour mates U2, featuring a breezy, earnest chorus and layers of icy keyboards and slinky, delayed guitars over a skittish electronic drum beat. It also includes a particularly left-field breakdown containing a spoken-word piece entirely in French, as if to signal to any fans not already aware that this isn’t your parents’ Noel Gallagher album.
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Remarkably, this injection of fresh ideas means the record manages to avoid the front-loading that affects even his most consistent release, allowing the second act to feel similarly engaging: ‘Black & White Sunshine’ is a bona fide summer anthem – all jangly guitars and soaring choruses – while ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ is a word of caution from Gallagher to his children set to a kaleidoscopic, sun-kissed riff that was clearly lifted from The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. ‘If Love is the Law’, meanwhile, is pure Phil Spector-esque pop featuring fellow Manchester legend Johnny Marr on guitar and harmonica.
‘She Taught Me How To Fly’, however, is the album’s true standout and the most unabashedly chart-bothering moment here. Structured around a simple two-chord, new wave groove, its bed of swirling guitars, pulsing bass and electronic flourishes make the perfect backdrop for Gallagher’s simple, lovelorn lyrics (“you lost your mind and your make-up, I think you lost your money too,” he sings, too smitten to even notice his lover’s potential pitfalls, “I don’t mind if you don’t mind”).
The uncharacteristically sinister epic of a closer, ‘The Man Who Built the Moon’, is also similarly impressive; comprising a menacing string section and a thumping bassline, its suave instrumentation and lyrics detailing a man’s punishing fall from grace mean its surely destined to end up on the ever-increasing pile of tunes that ‘should have, would have, could have’ been a James Bond theme.
Easily the most ambitious album Gallagher has released since Oasis’ heyday, ‘Who Built the Moon?’ is a surprise late-career reinvention from one of British music’s most distinctive figures – and though some fans may miss the ubiquity of lighters-in-the-air arena anthems found on his long and winding catalogue of previous releases, the album is the most clear refutation in recent memory of that enduring accusation that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
‘Who Built the Moon?’ is out now on Sour Mash Records.