The best decision Oasis made in approaching Dig Out Your Soul is to not try to re-create Don’t Believe the Truth.
The best advice any artist can receive is, “When you’ve done your best work to date, forget about it and try something different.” There’s always a strong pull to stay with the patterns that generated both excitement and artistic satisfaction, but a creative moment is just that: a moment in time governed by variables unique to that time. It’s best to move on and explore new possibilities.
Oasis figured that out, creating a heavier and darker soundscape in Dig Out Your Soul in contrast to the more melodic, free-flowing and upbeat feel of Don’t Believe the Truth. The result is a work where they sound both confident and curious, exploring new directions while remaining strongly attached to their core rock foundation and the ever-present influence of The Beatles. The only regret I have about this album is that it turned out to be their last, because it made you look forward to what they might come up with next.
I was in the crowd at the WaMu Theater in Seattle where they began their world tour promoting Dig Out Your Soul. Unfortunately, in an all-too common example of the disorganization that too often characterized their promotional efforts, the album hadn’t come out yet! I suppose that was the reason why they pretty much stuck to Oasis classics and tracks from Don’t Believe the Truth. That was unfortunate, for Dig Out Your Soul may not be the masterpiece that Don’t Believe the Truth turned out to be, but it still one of their better albums. I wish I’d seen a concert driven by the mood of Dig Out Your Soul, which is almost the evil twin of its predecessor.
The album opens with the crunchy chords and throbbing toms of “Bag It Up,” establishing one pattern that would set a good part of the feel of the music on Dig Out Your Soul: half-step movements. Here there’s a descending triple half-step movement on the last line of each verse, moving from F to E7 to E-flat 7 to D. The bluishness of the movement is accentuated by the use of the seventh chords, which always convey tension. This kind of movement (which we’ll also see in “Shock of the Lightning”) gives the album a darker, grittier feel compared to the more optimistic scales used on Don’t Believe the Truth.
We also hear a single half-step descending movement at the start of the chorus on the minor-seventh dominated “The Turning,” reinforcing the comparative eeriness of the album. A second motif is established here: the rapture. Remember when a bunch of dumb ass Christians were getting ready to bash their heads into ceilings all over the world because they believed some nut who told them God was calling them home? Steve Miller would have been more bloody likely. Apparently, Noel Gallagher was fascinated by the concept (or the insanity of it all), for we have the line “When the rapture takes me, be the fallen angel by my side” in this song, and the next song is, voilà, “Waiting for the Rapture.” Also in a minor key, with another half-step move up in the chorus, this is a boozier song with more energy, some good old-fashioned Oasis kick-ass guitar licks and a delightfully energetic vocal from Noel. The song ends with the ever-present nod to The Beatles in the form of a “Dear Prudence”-like fade.
All the opening tracks are strong, but “Shock of the Lightning” is on another plane entirely. Dominated by oscillating half-step movement (B to B-flat and back), this is not only one of Oasis’ best rockers since their early heyday, it’s one of my favorite rockers of all time. The backing instrumentation is full, solid and consistently on edge, providing a perfect sonic stage for Liam Gallagher to deliver one of his greatest vocal performances. This is not the Liam of Definitely Maybe, whose natural timbre and cheekiness made up for a leisurely approach to pitch. This is an exceptionally disciplined lead singer in total command of his voice. The power that has always characterized his vocals is still omnipresent, but this is power with clear intent . . . and it’s fucking powerful. The very last line of the song, where he uses that command to capture the song’s oscillation pattern and stretches the word “time” into “ti-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay ay-ay-ay-ime,” gets my thighs grinding every time I hear it. Now that’s rapture!
In another great example of “stick to the simple,” I love how Noel’s lead solo tracks the melody instead of taking off in a different direction. Coming after the quieter passage and the lead in from Zak Starkey’s gloriously riotous drumming, the restraint he employs is very sexy indeed. I love a disciplined lover.
Liam isn’t done yet, folks. Continuing to develop as a songwriter, he gives us the album’s most beautiful composition, “I’m Outta Time.” Showing once again a natural feel for melodic flow, he delivers a vocal as sensitive and nuanced as he ever has. It’s also a very refreshing change from the heavier numbers that made up the first four tracks. The piano touches from “A Day in the Life” and the excerpt from a John Lennon interview once again pay homage to the masters of melodic rock ‘n’ roll.
I suppose that given Noel’s vision of this album as one he wanted to “completely throw the kitchen sink at it,” there had to be at least one track that should have been left in the can, so “Get Off Your (High Horse Lady)” should not come as a surprise. With a pattern very reminiscent of the horrid “Wild Honey Pie” from the White Album, the song has a grating sonic quality that is most irritating. Noel gets his head screwed back on with “Falling Down,” borrowing the drum passage and some of the soundscape from “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Much more melodic and dynamic than the preceding track, this would prove to be Oasis’ last single.
Much of the album was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, which may explain why Dig Out Your Soul is their most Beatle-influenced album. This is further confirmed by another drone song, Gem Archer’s “To Be Where There’s Life,” where the drone comes not from a real sitar but a cheap plastic toy sitar that sounds ab fab. Oasis can’t help but put rock energy into such a song, and the result is a swaying, unified track heightened by an energetic vocal from Liam. It’s followed by “Ain’t Got Nothin’,” where Noel’s kitchen sink mentality leads to a muddled mess reminiscent of Be Here Now. This is followed by Andy Bell’s “The Nature of Reality,” a track with sort of a mystical bluesy feel that works well in the overall context.
Oasis’ final album closes with “Soldier On,” another excellent Liam Gallagher contribution and one of the few songs I know where the vocal delay patch actually works. The strength of the song cannot be found in the lyrics, which consist of short monosyllabic phrases, but in the thumping groove, insistent drone and clean arrangement. Another song in a minor key, it puts the finishing touches on the dark unity that pervades the album.
No one in the world was surprised that Oasis called it quits. The Gallagher brothers were always calling it quits in one form or another throughout their run; this just proved to be the real deal. Liam moved on with Gem and Andy to form Beady Eye, whose debut album was a delight; Noel gathered his High Flying Birds and produced a debut album that was only so-so. There’s no question that they’re better together, as were Lennon and McCartney, but sometimes you have to move on. I was getting rather bored with their public sniping at each other, so I think I was ready for them to go, too.
Unfortunately, they’re still sniping at each other to this day, so now we have the noise without the beauty of the music to compensate for it.
When I first heard Heathen Chemistry, I wanted to fling it into the nearest body of water. Fortunately, Noe Valley is in the dead center of San Francisco and both the bay and ocean lay beyond the boundaries of reasonable walking distance.
After a couple of months of failing to find something decent to listen to in the new releases of the period, I played it again. I still wasn’t particularly happy with it, but I had to admit I liked a couple of the tunes. What I didn’t like about it was it lacked a feeling of togetherness, of unity. My intuition was confirmed when I found out that Liam didn’t bother to go to the studio to record his vocals for months, after the rest of the band had finished their work. Heathen Chemistry reminded me of a bad version of Abbey Road; it had the funereal feel of musicians splitting in different directions.
Little did I realize that Heathen Chemistry was the starting point for those different directions to merge, instead of the bitter end that awaited The Beatles after the final note of “Her Majesty.”
Looking back through the lenses of Don’t Believe the Truth and Dig Out Your Soul, I see Heathen Chemistry very differently. I still think there are some godawful songs on it, that the recording quality isn’t what it should be and that the new lineup hadn’t gelled yet. What I do see now are signs of rebirth: Noel singing with much more confidence, the hint of new directions in the contributions of Gem Archer and Andy Bell, and the fact that when he was in the mood, Liam Gallagher could still bring it.
I’m surprised I didn’t like “The Hindu Times” from the get-go. It’s one of Oasis’ best rockers; certainly the best since “Some Might Say” and “Acquiesce.” Liam may have been late to the party, but he hits all the right moods and modes on this one. Maybe I was in a pissy mood because I was expecting so much; maybe it was the lingering 9/11 blues.
Then again, I might have been on the rag. Women!
I rather like “Force of Nature,” a mid-tempo rocker that Noel delivers with surprising strength and cool hardness. Unfortunately, his brother doesn’t live up to his billing in Gem Archer’s “Hung in a Bad Place,” which I suspect I would have liked had Liam cleared his sinuses before stepping up to the mike. I also don’t care for “Stop Crying Your Heart Out,” as the simple melody falls under the assault of an overwrought arrangement.
Making it three in a row, I don’t like “Songbird” either, where Liam’s budding songwriting talents are still comfortably ensconced in the bud. The chord pattern is so simple and boring that the various keyboard frills added by the band fail to save it. I was very surprised that it was released as a single; perhaps the Brits were as desperate as I was during a particularly weak period in music history.
Noel comes back to save things with a power ballad, “Little by Little,” where the band delivers a tight, rough backing to support his belt-it-out vocal. “A Quick Peep” was the only track on the album that I liked on the first pass, a well-constructed instrumental with great flow that sounds like no other song in their catalog, thanks to Andy Bell.
Unfortunately, this snappy little number is followed by two disasters. “(Probably) All in the Mind” is “Who Feels Love: The Sequel,” and as is the case with most sequels in any field of the arts, it sucks. Oasis really didn’t get the drone genre down until “Dig Out Your Soul,” and this number clinches that argument. After that is the way-too-cheery, “She Is Love,” which belongs on the B-side of a single produced by a one-hit wonder in the country-western field.
“Born on a Different Cloud” is yet another attempt at the album-ending opus that goes on way too long, given the weakness of its melody and lyrics (partially borrowed from “Working Class Hero”). The song also takes some odd and unsatisfying directions before returning to its predictable baseline. The album seems to end with “Better Man,” a muddled mess of a song . . . but after 30 minutes of silence, we get what really is Heathen Chemistry’s final song, “The Cage.” Needless to say, it’s hardly worth the wait or the trouble.
It shouldn’t be surprising that after hearing this album and the stories of more brotherly bickering that I thought that Heathen Chemistry represented Oasis’ death throes. I remember thinking at the time, “Shit—another fucking band I like has pissed it all away.” I knew Oasis was capable of so much more, but I also knew from following baseball that all the fucking high-priced talent in the world won’t save your team unless the guys can get their shit together. I didn’t think these guys would ever get their shit together.
Man, was I wrong!