Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds: Who Built the Moon? review: a dried up oasis of dross
Who Built The Moon?
It’s 2017: rock music is irrevocably dead. It’s a zombie form, shuffling along with scraps of flesh falling off its crumbling bones. It’s a bad smell. Such a figure is terrifying not for any destructive power it might possess, but simply for its uncanny presence: what is it doing here, now? This is not where it belongs. How can we escape it?
Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds practise a particularly guileless, tub-thumping, broad-strokes version of this pungent, hollowed-out genre. Perhaps this is to be expected – we’re talking about a middle-aged Manchester City fan who’s last memorable contribution to his art appeared more than two decades ago.
There have been children born, raised, educated, employed and ruined in the years since Noel Gallagher last released a collection of music that meant anything to people. But, thanks to the regressive cultural time-warp in which we are all trapped, and thanks to the predictability of the British music press, he lingers.
Apparently having been a major figure in the 1990s is considered reason enough to lavish yet more time and attention on a career that long ago ran out of steam. At this remove, 1996 feels like another universe entirely.
Who Built The Moon? begins with a pumping, looping track called Fort Knox, which appears tailor-made for the kind of advertisements they show at half-time on Sky Sports. It’s meant to be energising, a big, dumb statement of intent to kick things off. It builds and builds – there’s a terribly annoying alarm clock ringing through the middle of it – but doesn’t go anywhere. It will become a familiar feeling.
Most of the lyrics on Who Built The Moon? seem to be going for a sort of naive, nursery rhyme feeling: repetitive, riddled with stock phrases, wrought in only the most familiar, leaden shapes. They are almost completely shorn of melody, and whenever one does appear, it is hammered repeatedly until it turns to dust. “The one I love / The one I love / She is divine / She’s out to blow my mind / The one I love / The one I love / She taught me to fly / She taught me how to fly…” It’s genuinely mind-numbing.
Cause of embarrassment
There are musical gestures here that would be a cause of embarrassment if you heard them played by a gang of black-clad teenagers at a Saturday afternoon battle of the bands in a rural parish hall. In Be Careful What You Wish For, a basic practice-room lick on the acoustic guitar intro gives way to something that is meant to be possessed of a smoky, mechanic blues. Instead, when the vocals start matching the guitar – “chick-a-paw” – it is very hard not to laugh. From the music to the lyrics – a platitudinous, again curiously adolescent, portrait of an outsider – it’s awkward and childish.
Be Careful What You Wish For is one of several tracks to feature an electronic tint courtesy of producer David Holmes. This typically amounts to some wan backing vocals, a rigid beat, a glitter of synthesised texture. There’s some flutters of gently warped tape delay in the intros and outros, and a couple of instrumental tracks that don’t do very much except provide respite from Gallagher’s laboured singing. The sound is ultimately, and unintentionally, claustrophobic: the instruments are robbed of any character they might have had, blunted and compressed into an overstuffed void.
It’s not hard to imagine these songs being played on large festival stages, and not just because it often sounds like they were recorded on one. There’s a sense of meaningless spectacle, an opulent set of prefabricated gestures utterly lacking in ingenuity or imagination, performed for the lack of a better idea. Nothing shocks, nothing stirs.
It’s telling that the best song here is an acoustic bonus track, Dead in the Water, recorded live in RTÉ’s studios. It’s the kind of song that wouldn’t even have made a B-side in Gallagher’s heyday – and there’s an apparently endless train of bright-eyed young lads doing this thing on the radio every day of the week – but still the song has more charm and immediacy than anything else to be found Who Built The Moon? At least there’s personality there, a surprising dose of directness after all the gussied-up inhumanity that preceded it.
“You’ve got the love, I’ve got the brains,” Gallagher sings on Black And White Sunshine – fair enough, but does anybody have a half-decent tune? Does anyone here have anything new or interesting to say? Who Built The Moon? would suggest not. Remove some of the varnish and this record could have been made any time in the last 70 years. It’s the stale, musty sound of a glorified pub band going through the motions. Rock is dead; this is a pantomime.