Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Noel Gallagher can’t seem to let himself cut loose

Illustration for article titled Noel Gallagher can’t seem to let himself cut loose

Chasing Yesterday feels like an all-too-apt title for Noel Gallagher’s latest endeavor. The record gives off the vibe of being eager for days gone by; it has the spirit of a much older album, which makes listening to it feel a bit like stepping out of time. Noel Gallagher doesn’t give a fuck what contemporary music sounds like, and his new album proves that in spades, as there’s nothing here to give any evidence that it’s the 21st century.

On his self-titled debut album with High-Flying Birds, Gallagher picked up where he left off with Oasis, crafting retro-pop rock that tried to make up in craftsmanship what it lacked in spark. Chasing Yesterday doubles down on that formula, delving even more into the spirit of rock ’n’ roll past. It’s more expansive in its sonic palette than previous outings: There are dreamy, shoegaze-and-soul odysseys, peppy shuffles with a hint of Steely Dan, and a hearty dose of the classic rock throwdowns on which Gallagher and his brother made their fortunes. And if none of it feels all that essential, it also clearly reveals a songwriter quite content in his milieu—everything here is of a piece, and the album mostly makes for a consistent whole.

The album’s defining trait might be “polite,” which is not necessarily the best quality for a freewheeling rock album to cultivate. The rockers don’t rock too hard, the ballads don’t overstay their welcome—even a meandering slice of post-Haight Ashbury hippie jam like “The Right Stuff” never gets too loose, or too exploratory. It’s clearly Gallagher trying to stretch, but he can’t help himself; every tune comes back to the same simple melodies he’s been writing his whole life, with varying degrees of success. The weakest of these, like “Dying Of The Light” or poorly chosen album opener “Riverman,” just come across like retreads of the sweeping ballads he used to effortlessly churn out in the ’90s. They’re not bad songs; they’re just not memorable.

That being said, it’s refreshing to hear the most uptempo rockers making for the best songs on the album, a serious inversion from Gallagher’s last effort. “Lock All The Doors” stomps and fusses with a vitality absent from many of the other tracks. It’s a genuinely great song that benefits immensely from Noel—never the strongest singer—loosening up the vocals and tossing off lines with an easygoing charm. “In The Heat Of The Moment” and “Ballad Of The Mighty I” both bounce along with agreeably catchy bass licks and sing-along harmonies. (Incidentally, it’s hard to tell if Gallagher’s just goofing off with these titles, playing on the fact that he lives among the music of the past—one of the songs is aptly titled “While The Song Remains The Same”). But even the attempts to add some cock-rock flourishes are mannered: “The Mexican” sounds neutered, despite its cowbell and ’70s hard-rock riff; like the album as a whole, it wants to rock, but not if the neighbors are going to complain.

A lot of this tameness can be traced to the fact that Noel Gallagher is a crack songwriter, but not the most dynamic performer in the world. (And definitely not an inspired lyricist—the words continue to be the weakest and most cliché-ridden part of the whole enterprise.) A song like “You Know We Can’t Go Back,” which could be an uplifting, Coldplay-type rocker with the right tone and intensity, feels more like a Gin Blossoms B-side, due to the measured approach to the material. This doesn’t mean he needs to call Liam; it just means the elder Gallagher is a little too comfortable in his shoes. Chasing Yesterday is airless and compressed, more like an idea of a great rock album than an actual one. Someday, Noel Gallagher is going to let up on the reins, and stop trying to get everything sounding just right; when he does, some great music is going to come out. Again.