Oasis might very well be the best band in the world, and also the most frustrating. In a decade when U2 - the very model of a big, "important" band - gets crushed by an act as "trivial" as the Spice Girls (and why not? "Wannabe" is probably a better song than "Discotechque" anyway), and the music press has its hopes for the future of rock 'n' roll pinned on the mind-numbingly boring and uninspired digitized thuds of "electronica," Oasis has it both ways: big sales and bigger guitars, along with a fair amount of critical acclaim. They've also incurred a considerable backlash, mostly due to the attitude problems of Liam and Noel Gallagher - the two brothers who front the band, and, really, the only ones that matter - and the fact that it was hard to go anywhere in 1995 without hearing "Wonderwall," "Don't Look Back in Anger," or "Champagne Supernova."
Radio saturation aside, it's the brothers' obnoxiousness╩that's the key to their success: free of the grating, self-conscious pieties of pop acts like Pearl Jam, Oasis is having fun, and there's a kind of freedom in their music that transcends pretty much anything else in music these days.
So it's a little unnerving to play their new album, Be Here Now, and discover that, at 12 tracks, it's more than 70 minutes long. Additionally, a majority of the songs on it run over six minutes, with the epic "All Around the World" clocking in at nine, and that's before it gets reprised later on. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Noel Gallagher's chief appeal as a songwriter lies in the incessant catchiness of his perfectly constructed pop tunes. So while Be Here Now features a ton of neo-classic Noel pop songs, the length of some of then tends to stretch them out a bit. Which brings us to the fact that, at their most generic, Oasis are a pretty thin band, musically.
Not that the entire album is like this: the leadoff track (and first single), "D'You Know What I Mean?" runs over seven minutes, but it's tauter and edgier that anything Oasis has done in the past, and the sound - featuring samples, tape running backward, and big, sharp drums -╩carries the song through its many repetitive choruses. "Don't Go Away" is a surprisingly affecting love song, almost a ballad, and one of the more personal-sounding things Noel's written. The best song on the album, "My Big Mouth," is a blistering squall of distortion and attitude with maybe the catchiest chorus in the history of pop songwriting.
It's also effortlessly cool, in a way that something with the elegiac grandeur of "All Around the World" can't even come close to. And effortless cool has always been Oasis's stock in trade. Accusations that the band is all style over substance seem to miss the point: with Oasis, style is substance, and while the lyrics to their best songs - Definitely Maybe's "Live Forever," "Supersonic," and "Slide Away"; Morning Glory's "Wonderwall," "Don't Look Back in Anger," and "Cast No Shadow" - are more than a little obscure and sometimes tossed-off, the sound of the songs communicates pretty much everything you need to know.
There's no doubt that "Don't Look Back in Anger" is about resignedly accepting fate, even though the lines "Slip inside the eye of your mind/Don't you know you might find/A better place to play" don't really say much at all. The songs are centered around their beautifully-constructed melodies, and the frequently meaningless lyrics are tossed on top, almost out of pop convention. Which probably makes Oasis as postmodern as Tortoise, just with bigger guitars, fewer pretensions, and groupies.
Be Here Now is at its best when the songs play to Oasis's strengths. "My Big Mouth" is probably the best example, though the anthemic "Stand By Me" and the driving "It's Getting Better (Man!!)" come close. It's at its worst when the songs get away from basic tunefulness and get lost in self-indulgence. "All Around the World" is a good enough song - weaker than "Champagne Supernova" but not terrible - but gets old before it's half over. "Be Here Now" plays with clever production techniques, but feels half-written and goes on too long. And the awful "Fade In-Out," complete with slide guitar by Johnny Depp seems like it's aspiring to a sort of Stones-esque country blues, and ends up sounding eerily like Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." Comedic value aside, this is not a good thing.
In a year in which pop seems to be collapsing in on itself, not to mention former Oasis arch-rivals Blur released the best album of their career, Oasis's fate isn't entirely certain. Be Here Now is a risk, and it feels like a transitional album, combining the snarl and distortion of Definitely Maybe with the pop ambition of Morning Glory. It's something new but nothing revolutionary, and, unlike its predecessors, feels slightly less self-assured. Which might be a good thing╩- the boys from Manchester might be growing up some.
It's a step removed from what made Oasis great in the first place. Be Here Now is an excellent album, but there's something missing from it. Oasis's first single, "Supersonic," asked the question, "You can have it all but how much do you want it?" With Be Here Now, the answer isn't as clear as it used to be.
-- CD: Oasis, Be Here Now
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 2, September 12, 1997
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