Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Back The Way We Came review: an enjoyable look back that ducks Noel’s more experimental moments
Three albums in, the Chief casts a retrospective eye over the first decade of a hugely successful solo career built more on steady evolution than radical reinvention.
Image: Javier Bragado / WireImage
“I’ve had enough success to last me a lifetime,” says Noel Gallagher explaining the entrenched commitment to doing whatever he damn well pleases with his solo career over the past decade. “I don’t need any more glory,” he continues, not entirely convincingly, having now sold 2.4 million records and notched up three No.1 albums since leaving Oasis in 2009.
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This 18-track best of, compiled by the Chief himself, recaps in roughly chronological order the journey from his eminently listenable but overly familiar self-titled 2011 debut, via the self-produced Chasing Yesterday (2015) through to 2017’s Who Built The Moon?, Gallagher’s most creatively stimulating work since (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?.
It was only on his third album that the kaleidoscopic ambient electronica and strutting disco Gallagher has threatened for years finally emerged, so it’s a shame that only two tracks from that record make the cut here. Gallagher’s first two albums get nine selections between them, with the rest of the tracklisting picked from EPs released in 2019 and 2020, plus two new songs. The deluxe edition adds 12 instrumentals, alternative versions and remixes.
Three of the four tracks from the Birds’ self-titled debut are barely an evolution from latter-day Oasis. Lavishly orchestrated opener Everybody’s On The Run is followed by The Death Of You And Me, a Kinksy acoustic stomper from the same ballpark as The Importance Of Being Idle. Noel’s insistent one-note riff prevents widescreen ballad If I Had A Gun… from becoming overly pedestrian, but AKA… What a Life! is exceptional, by a country mile the best track on Noel’s solo debut.
A swaggering disco beat emerges from swirling reverse tape loops, with a wall of moody piano chords and some smouldering string bends at the heart of the kind of reinvention Oasis had been crying out for since Be Here Now. Noel, though, wasn’t creatively sated by his solo debut, admitting: “I was still stuck in a way of thinking: ‘this is what I do’.”
Chasing Yesterday “a necessary bridge between the first and third albums” saw Gallagher inching into new territories. Lead single In The Heat Of The Moment was a move towards the dancefloor, yet Riverman reveals its influences readily, another contemplative mid-tempo acoustic number paying melodic and lyrical homage to The Beatles’ Something. Gallagher’s fluid bluesy solo, peppered with aching bends, is one of his best, answered by a smoky sax break half-inched from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond.
Lock All The Doors pre-dates Oasis, its chorus salvaged from an early version of B-side My Sister Lover and the urgent three-chord verses recalling Up In The Sky and Morning Glory. The breathless 12-bar solo illustrates the growth in Noel’s guitar playing since the song’s initial conception. The lovely, brooding The Dying Of The Light is bogged down by Noel’s penchant for a clunky life metaphor and easy rhyme, while he returns to the well he drew from on AKA… What A Life! for Ballad Of The Mighty I, Johnny Marr contributing a restrained melodic solo and chiming arpeggios to one of Chasing Yesterday’s most interesting tracks. Disappointingly, space-jazz exploration The Right Stuff, spawned from Noel’s shelved album with the Amorphous Androgynous, isn’t included.
Back The Way We Came’s second side begins with “dad disco” EP selection Black Star Dancing. Tremolo-washed synth chords and funky percussive strums accompany a softer-sounding Noel getting his groove on as he coos: “nature is dancing and it makes me sweat”. He then channels an inner Billy Gibbons we never knew he possessed for a thrilling, ostentatious solo drowning in fuzz and wah.
The sessions for third album Who Built the Moon? were, says Gallagher, “one of the great periods of my life”. Challenged and provoked by David Holmes, the record took four years to make, yet it’s under-represented here. Holy Mountain is outrageously glam, combining a stomping 70s beat, maddeningly catchy tin whistle sampled from The Ice Cream’s The Chewin’ Gum Kid and a descending bass run that’s almost as infectious. “Get out of the doldrums, baby,” roars Noel. Indeed. You could almost hear the sound of Liam furiously typing his incredulous mockery into twitter.
It’s A Beautiful World is perhaps the pinnacle of Noel’s solo career to date. Featuring a spoken word appearance from French scissors wielder Charlotte Marionneau, it’s the sort of dreamy electronic indie hybrid Gallagher dipped his toe in when collaborating with The Chemical Brothers on Setting Sun and Let Forever Be. The remaining EP tracks are largely compelling, too. A Dream Is All You Need To Get By is a hazy, Smiths-like delight flavoured with Latin rhythms, while This Is The Place fizzes with big beat energy. Thrown away, as is Gallagher’s wont, as a bonus track on Who Built The Moon? Dead In the Water is strikingly beautiful and one of his strongest lyrical performances. Recorded live at an Irish radio session, it’s stark, supremely romantic and deserving of loftier billing.
Of the two new songs, We’re On Our Way is strongest. It’s one of Gallagher’s great ruminative anthems, recalling past glories as he sings wistfully “Good luck in the afterlife/ I hear the morning sun doesn’t cast no shadow”. Flying On The Ground, by contrast, is a breezy acoustic strummer, Gallagher throwing up images of rolling stones, setting suns and his heart of gold as if he’s been doing this stuff for 30 years.
We don’t need a best-of to tell us Noel Gallagher is, a supreme, generation-defining songwriter with a rare universal touch, yet the tracklisting here and the decision to abort a collaborative album with the Amorphous Androgynous suggest a reluctancy to fully embrace experimental interests. The highest points on volume one of Back The Way We Came are those where Noel is operating outside of his comfort zone. It’ll be fascinating to see where he takes us with the second volume.
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