Noel Gallagher likes having his destiny in his own hands.
Go back to the earliest days of Oasis and it was a single-handed drive for super stardom, a masterplan jotted down in notebooks which carefully sketched out three years of a life to be transformed.
It dragged the man from the dead-end alleys of Thatcher’s Britain to the champagne halls of Tony Blair’s Downing Street.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and the beginning of a solo career started to put Gallagher firmly back in control, although 2011’s ‘Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ was a study in classic, if unspectacular British songwriting.
Owing more to The Kinks than Oasis ever did to The Beatles, basic, user-friendly anthems were almost immediately filling arenas even if the LP itself felt somehow unfulfilled. The blame for this unquenched mood should be left at least partly at the door of Dave Sardy, a producer with which Gallagher has enjoyed a long, and no less bemusing, creative relationship since Oasis’ 2005 album ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’.
In Sardy’s hands the magic of songs long before devoured on YouTube were lost. ‘If I Had a Gun’, haunting and painfully emotional in its embryonic live form, was Sardied into a predictable dirge where everything – acoustics, electrics, drums, you name it – was thrown at the mix in one immediate lump. Disappointing too was the final version of ‘(I Want To Live In a Dream) In My Record Machine‘; discussed for years and packing a punch in demo form, on record taken up a key and inexplicably narrated by the soundtrack of children let loose in a playground. Where spice should have been the ingredient of choice, all the pair could find was sugar.
And so we’ve started already. With Noel Gallagher it’s difficult not to look back, to compare and contrast with history, and the title of his second solo album certainly lends itself to such nostalgia. ‘Chasing Yesterday’ might have been a split-second decision immediately regretted, but it’ll inspire a thousand writers to conclude their thoughts in a style which this review is heading unashamedly towards too. (We’re being post-modern, go with it.)
But there is a deeper point to this, as looking back seems to offer up reasons for the most apparent steps forward to be found on Gallagher’s second solo outing. Chief of those being that, by luck or design, the production was his own responsibility – and therefore so too was his destiny. Swap the tight confines of a British Gas warehouse for the equally modest surroundings of a nondescript London studio, and he could almost have been 25 again, going it alone, shaping and sculpting ten tracks on purely personal terms.
Indeed, with the best will in the world parts of ‘Chasing Yesterday’ beg for the past to be rediscovered – be it in the ‘Masterplan’ chimes of the sublime ‘Girl With The X-Ray Eyes’, or the familiar ‘Wonderwall’ opening strumming of ‘Riverman’, subtle and prudent in delivery to the extent that a roof-raising guitar solo arriving less than halfway in nevertheless knocks right on time. ‘Lock All The Doors’, meanwhile, naturally recalls the hurricane gusts of ‘Headshrinker’, ‘Fade Away’ and ‘Bring It On Down’ given that it was borne of the same storm.
The clarity of a recording space which barely ever played host to more than three bodies shines through. ‘The Dying Of The Light’ holds back where ‘If I Had a Gun’ burned out, easing through close to six minutes with a commendable restraint. The same can be said for ‘While The Song Remains The Same’, which whispers at an ever-changing world. At landmarks, sights and sounds now preserved in memories, not concrete. It’s an intimate blue plaque to a distant childhood.
Amidst the reminiscing there’s for once plenty of forward thinking, especially on ‘The Right Stuff’. Space-jazz might be too far, but in these circles it’s certainly adventurous, and loops and soothes and hypnotises with dreamy female backing vocals and those much vaunted saxophones. Progressive rock done and dusted. More of this please. ‘Ballad Of The Mighty I’ isn’t quite as well realised, the one black spot on an otherwise pretty much flawless production, though it continues a new-found propensity for disco, begs for repeated listens and boasts a punctuated chorus which actually flies as high as anything on the album away from ‘Lock All The Doors’.
There is however, undoubted cause for frustration in places. ‘The Mexican’ is the kind of studgy, forgettable plod Gallagher still seems unable to shake off, attempting to scale Queens Of The Stone Age but barely going past Stereophonics, while ‘In The Heat Of The Moment’ exists for a chorus and little else and may well make sense live, but falls flat on record in comparison to the virtues found elsewhere.
Like the debut, there also remains a nagging sense that a certain something is missing. That it’s all a bit serene, a bit tranquil. That an extra edge might have added an extra mark, an extra star or, as some prefer, an extra decimal point to what is without question a strong album. Call it the side-burn sporting, Ray Ban wearing elephant in the room that will always hover on the fringes of Noel’s solo work.
Were it not taken, ‘A Perfect Contradiction’ might have better summed up the record. Yes, Gallagher has been chasing yesterday this time round, be it by grabbing hold of his destiny once more, or by unconsciously accommodating nods and winks to the band he’ll never escape from, but in doing so he’s rarely sounded fresher, and has never been so willing to explore new songwriting directions. They might not be the kind of leaps into the unknown made by some contemporaries, not quite a monstrous psychedelic bubble, but they are steps at least down a freshly lit road worth persevering on.
The contradictions are there in an album which can at once find time for a 23-year-old demo, and a fresh-out-of-the-box sax-fused duet. Songs bringing to mind some of the most celebrated Oasis work, but never feeling lazily rehashed in the manner which plagued portions of that group’s 21st century output.
This conclusion then, and a thousand others, might well be obvious – fortunately it seems these days Noel Gallagher is nowhere near as predictable.