Sunday, August 30, 2009

D'You Know What I Mean?: A Long-Distance Look On The Messy Follow-Up

I had the idea for a series of articles for this blog, entitled something like "Middling Bands Make Great Albums", highlighting the one great moment by an otherwise adequate but dismissable band. The idea of writing a whole column about the Goo Goo Dolls' Hold Me Up, however, seemed like a bad idea before I even started, and the whole "Great Band Makes A Mediocre Album" seemed a little obvious and boring, and I don't want to listen to "Hail To The Thief" or "A Ghost Is Born" again if there's not a gun to my head. I've just been looking to contrast the difference in quality between an album and the work that came around it.

So in that spirit, let's talk about Oasis' Be Here Now.

One of the most highly-anticipated rock and roll records of my formative years, Oasis had raised the bar pretty high. I wasn't a fan at the time - too busy listening to serious angst - after all, I was an American who was looking for the next auteur after grunge... I couldn't be bothered with their hippie-Beatles platitudes. But, I couldn't deny that after the larger-than-life rock and roll of Definitely Maybe and the larger-than-that epic balladeering of the (What's The Story) Morning Glory singles factory, the excitement surrounding the imminent release of Be Here Now was palpable. The leadoff single was "D'You Know What I Mean", and it seemed that the lads in the band were about to enter their psychedelic phase, but with that punky edge that Liam's obnoxious sneer lent their tunes.

And they dropped the ball, or so the story goes.

Coming off not only two of the biggest albums of the '90s, but (from a "classic pop songwriting" perspecitve), two of the best albums of the '90s, they were doomed to fail, to some degree. Bands simply cannot sustain top-of-the-charts success for three albums in a row anymore, even in the heady days of 1990s Cool Britannia. The public is too fickle... a cruelly unforgiving, trendspotting mistress

Many might point to the Gallagher brothers' own assessment of the album to back up the popular opinion - Liam thinks it's genius, but he's a self-deluded prick, and Noel thinks it's terrible, but he lets the public define what he thinks is his best work. If Definitely Maybe was from a young band who wanted to beat the world, and Morning Glory was the sound of the biggest band in the world basking in success, where else did they have to go? They'd been too clear-eyed about their vision, too focused in their aim to be the biggest and the best, and suddenly, they made a sprawling, confused album that sounds messy, almost scared of its own place in the world. What now? "We have everything, and we're not happy, because we don't know where to go next." It might not have the immediate surface impact of the first two, because it has no "Live Forever", or "Rock 'N' Roll Star", or "Wonderwall", or "Roll With It", or "Champagne Supernova" and on and on. There aren't many great singles-type moments on the album, but as a piece, from a songwriting perspective, it's one of the great "we're huge, what now?" albums in the rock canon. It's the paranoid, insular, almost-falling-apart vibe that made albums like Exile On Main Street so fascinating. When you're that famous, when you're working under that level of expectation, you have no precedent at the moment. Who do you look to for inspiration? Nevermind the fact that the band was fronted by the two most self-obsessed rock-star types of their day, dead set on making their epic statement.

It should have been the concise record that made Britpop the biggest musical movement since '77 punk, but it was, in fact, the nail in the coffin. It was purchased in droves, then sold back the next week. It's not that it was a bad record, it's just that it's not the 35-minute singles bonanza that everyone put their money on. Records this messy and sprawling do not stick to people's ribs, they want the next immediate rush. Shit, I bought the hype and it's taken me more than a decade to come around.

Was the album a failure? Yes. It didn't sell as well, it was held in lower regard, it didn't have as many singles, and people still use it as the punchline to jokes.

Why? Because the hooks weren't as strong, the production was too thick and layered (requiring too much work on the part of the listener), and for a band that wrote effortless, inviting pop hits, it seemed too insular. Oasis has (as evidenced by their B-sides comp The Masterplan), probably three full albums of B-sides that are at least as strong as every song on Be Here Now, almost entirely written by Noel. By the third official album, but about the SIXTH if you go by song count, he handed some of the writing reins over to the band. Poor choice, but it's hard to blame the guy. I could make you a mix disc of Oasis material you've never heard and would blow you away. Give the guy a break.

But before it seems like I'm just covering for his shortcomings, let me note that ""My Big Mouth" sounds as good as some Definitely Maybe material; "Magic Pie" (despite some questionable lyrics) is at least as anthemic as "Some Might Say"; "Stand By Me" is their "All You Need Is Love" knockoff (which is to say, a loveable singalong with good intentions but a bit slight - but hey, we all saw them doing a version of that song coming, right?); "Fade In-Out" is, admittedly, psychedelic nonsense; and "All Around The World" is one of those sing-alongs that's so good you might hear it in a commercial. "Don't Go Away" and "Be Here Now" are still, I declare, better than most of the lameass post-Radiohead Brit-mope bands like Travis and (ugh) Coldplay. All in all, yeah, it's overlong, it's overblown, and the songs, while good, aren't up to the level of the first two albums and a lot of the early B-sides. So? Keane has built a whole career on songs like "Don't Go Away", and I LIKE Keane.

Don't believe it. This is a really good record. Not as good as the first two, but name me two albums by the same classic pop band that stand up as a pair like those do, and I dare you to see (if you can even name an example) the follow-up that stands up like this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment