With each note Noel Gallagher has written since the acrimonious dissolution of Britain’s most beloved, two-headed dysfunctional rock band, the urgency he feels to leave Oasis behind has grown clearer.
On his pseudo-solo, self-titled debut in 2011, the spot where Oasis ended and the High Flying Birds began was hazy at best. The energy, the boisterous guitar hooks, the catchy refrains – everything was as to be expected. While some lamented the predictable result, for many listeners it was the first taste of a beloved flavor we’d been craving since the flameout of 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul.
In 2015, Noel and the flock returned with Chasing Yesterday, an album that upped the psychedelia and took more risks without fully abandoning the formula that first made Gallagher a rock star. Now, with Who Built the Moon?, the pretense is officially over. No one could mistake the third offering from the High Flying Birds as an Oasis sibling, and while that may have been the goal, the result is a record that sacrifices its identity in hopes of discovering a new one along the way.
Lead single “Holy Mountain” feels perfectly crafted to one day be optioned for an Old Navy commercial. Drenched in decadent brass, the song strives for musical pyrotechnics that never dive beneath the surface. Likewise, “Keep on Reaching” tries to anchor itself on a slinky piano line and a “live in studio” vibe that never grasp onto anything of substance.
Across Who Built the Moon?, Gallagher blindly dresses his music in genres in hopes of finding a fit. Much like a child tasked with picking out his own outfit, the final result is a piecemeal production that is momentarily entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying. Buried within songs like “Black and White Sunshine” are the kernels of brilliance — heard in the track’s jangly guitar and the building momentum of strings – but then the lackluster chorus arrives, and with it the cold truth that a brilliant refrain is not on its way.
The questionable choices are not relegated simply to song structure, which are largely more complex — to uneven results — compared to Gallagher’s past effort. No, the head scratchers are much more specific, be it a long snippet of French dialogue on “It’s a Beautiful World” or the choice to sandwich two of the album’s best tracks between interludes that sound like a music theory student’s Garageband-created senior thesis on “atmosphere.”
Indeed, as Who Built the Moon? draws to a close, Gallagher saves his best tricks for last. First is “If Love Is the Law”, which rides a rollicking guitar and chimes into a slightly off-kilter but infectious chorus. Later a bridge courtesy of some spirited harmonica playing delivers a track that showcases his best assets undiluted by excess tinkering and cleverness.
Then there’s “The Man Who Built the Moon” — a standout cut that transforms the ominous foreboding of a horror film into pure rock and roll. Building off a brooding piano, the song is heavy with menace. While perhaps a touch over-the-top when paired with the largely lifeless songs that precede it, “The Man Who Built the Moon” provides a necessary infusion of blood.
In a year where both Liam and Noel released new work in a span of weeks, the paths of the brothers Gallagher are now quite clear. Abandoning the aberration that was Beady Eye, Liam has opted to start down the trail first blazed by his older brother – one where Oasis remains in plain sight, masked in the guise of a solo effort. Noel, however, seems to have gotten out the excess Oasis material that may have lingered on his brain in the three years between the band’s end and his new career’s beginning.
Now tasked with starting his journey anew, many have lauded Noel’s willingness to discard the coattails of his monolith predecessor in favor of the unknown. However, it seems odd that fans would clamor for something different when the familiar has given Gallagher everything he has. Were Who Built the Moon? to have been released by an up-and-coming artist, it’s doubtful anyone would have noticed. It is Noel’s legacy that keeps him current and for good reason.
For all the backlash against Oasis, and the tabloid fodder of Twitter battles and bad behavior, the sound they created is untouchable. While there is something noble in wanting to prove your merit, it didn’t seem to be of concern when Noel first emerged with the High Flying Birds. There is a happy middle-ground still fertile with melodramatic melodies and soaring choruses. Let’s hope in Noel’s efforts to burn the past he hasn’t discarded the map that will take him back home.
Essential Tracks: “If Love Is the Law” and “The Man Who Built the Moon”