Review: Noel Gallagher Lends You A Dream…

I guess it’s uplifting in the right places, and it’s melancholy in the right places. I think it’s quite an honest record. I don’t like to make the [songs] too autobiographical. I certainly wouldn’t draw attention to the parts of songs that are about me and my life. I guess my style of songwriting has always been to try and focus on the universal truths of life – it will mean as much to the next man as it means to you. It’s a knack that you have to work out to try and articulate something that’s been articulated a billion times before, but try to do it a different way.  – Noel Gallagher to SPIN Magazine, 2023

(c) Sour Mash Records Ltd.

Noel Gallagher opens his first studio album in almost 5 years with a track entitled “I’m Not Giving Up Tonight”. Some Bob Dylan shines through, accompanied by intermittent hints of Americana and gospel that will continue to flow throughout the entirety of the album. Even with its beautiful string arrangement, this by no means was the strongest choice for an opener. Every other High Flying Birds intro (“Fort Knox”, “Riverman”, “Everybody’s on the Run”) packs such a fierce punch that this tame, slow burner stands absolutely no chance in comparison. In an interview with Apple Music, the Chief reveals the song began life on his last album, Who Built The Moon?, as a song entitled “Daisies”. “It’s a song of defiance, which is why I thought it would be a good opening track. I needed 20 takes to do it. There is absolutely no chance on God’s green earth that I’m ever going to play it […] live.”

Lead single, track two, “Pretty Boy”, has always been a favorite and continues to be one of my most streamed songs of all time. It’s majestic yet psychedelic, somewhere between The Cure and Depeche Mode. For Council Skies, it remains the life of the party. “I perversely thought,” Noel told Apple Music, “‘well, when people hear that it’s yet another drum machine, I shall bathe in their tears.’ Although I don’t go out of my way to challenge my audience, I do like to engage with them. So it keeps them on their toes a little bit.”

“Dead to the World” is absolutely mesmerizing. “I happened to be in the studio one very, very quiet evening, and I hit those two chords that I’d never played before. They set the mood immediately. […] It’s a personal song and I don’t do many of those. Well, I don’t admit to doing many of those…” An instrumental version is included in the deluxe edition, solidifying the notion that it’s one of Noel Gallagher’s most beautiful compositions of all time. Don’t believe me? This is what the other fella had to say…

“Open The Door, See What You Find” was a surprise single released a mere two days before the release of Council Skies. Sounding a bit like The Kinks or The Beatles, it’s the rare joyous take on reflection, wrapped up in a warm ’60s package.

On January 1st, 2022, a demo was uploaded to YouTube entitled “Trying to Find a World That’s Been and Gone Pt. 1”. Council Skies sees the fully realized version of the song, which…isn’t very different at all. In fact, it’s the same vocal take. However, the overall mix is much improved and might just be the superior version. “Pt. 2” has seemingly been canceled by Noel, telling Apple Music, “[…] It had this big [reprise] where the drums came in and the big production, but I had a moment of clarity in the studio and went back to the original demo. When it was cut down […], it said more to me.” I just can’t stand the needless, 30-second wind sounds that tag on to the end, which doesn’t even transition into our next song. More on that later.

What is there to say that hasn’t yet been said about “Easy Now”? In our initial coverage, I called it a “warm hug” and that’s what it proved to be, worthy of replacing “Heroes” in “Perks of Being A Wallflower”. It’s loud, electrifying and filled with heart and soul, but not in an Oasis way- in a Noel Gallagher way, although he’ll tell you it’s all Pink Floyd.

In terms of online reception, the title track “Council Skies” might have been panned even harder than “Pretty Boy”…as, musically, they’re quite similar! “Council Skies” shares the same chord progression as “Pretty Boy,” which some perceive as a lack of creativity while others view it as a reinvention. I lie somewhere in the middle, as it is my least favorite of our five singles. Reusing chords is a technique reminiscent of Oasis, which wouldn’t have concerned me in subsequent releases. However, having such similarity on the same album feels somewhat disconcerting. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that The Reflex Revision version featured on the deluxe edition effectively masks these similarities and has become my preferred version.

(c) Matt Crockett 2023

The song title ‘There She Blows!’ may seem unconventional, but it contains substantial depth worth exploring. Perhaps my favorite non-single track, it is pure, delicate ear candy. “I have no idea why I would write a song about some nautical bull****. [In my] hotel [at the time], one of the books on the bookshelf was Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Not that I would ever read it, but I can only surmise that it might have something to do with that.” It would have been a perfect opening, on-par with “Everybody’s On The Run” in my opinion. With its heavy bass and scathing lyrics, Noel repetitively emphasizes ‘I told him that I loved you more…‘. In terms of its musical style, it exudes a greater sense of confidence in its Americana influence compared to “I’m Not Giving Up Tonight”.

“Love Is A Rich Man” is happy, bouncing, and shiny, but doesn’t exactly do anything new. I will thank it for lyric, “I’ll be your dancing horse if you let me,” which will immediately become a meme. It does hold one magical breakdown, though.

Imagine your heroes have saved the day in your favorite mid-2007, PG action film. “Think Of A Number” is the first song you hear in the credits. That’s not a bad quality at all. It’s dark yet haunting. Joy Division, along with The Cure came to mind, but that shouldn’t subtract from its originality in production choices. “[…] I thought, ‘Can it open the album?’ And really, in hindsight, it should have done,” Noel told Apple Music. In my opinion, it serves as the ideal conclusion, leaving fans with a lingering melancholic atmosphere they have contemplated and been immersed in for the past hour. The song, though, closes with those dreaded wind sounds discussed earlier. Why?! Did Noellie G accidentally duplicate the sound effect in his Logic Pro file? Including these royalty-free, Pixabay or Envato sounds at the beginning of the album and reprising them at the end could have been a cool, artistic touch that aligns with the album’s vibe. Unfortunately, the closing song referencing track 5 isn’t near as cool. It’s pure nonsense, disrupting playlists everywhere. Digital age things.

This is where things get muddy. In the standard version of Council Skies, we have “We’re Gonna Get There In The End” up next. In the Deluxe, “Think Of A Number” closes us out, as I [and Noel, apparently] believe it should.

(c) Matt Crockett 2023

(c) Matt Crockett 2023

Fans are familiar with “We’re Gonna Get There In The End”, as it was also released as a YouTube exclusive demo in January 2021 (“…and wouldn’t you know it, fans went ape*** for it!”). The tune leaks with a mixture of comfort and electricity. It’s a perfect example of Noel Gallagher’s songwriting talents; demonstrating more than a song- but what he’s the best at. The lyrics house some of his best, such as “don’t be afraid when you’re rolling the dice, life is a trip that you don’t take twice” and “if you think that your faith is enough, the weight that you carry is love”. In this fully realized version, however, a new brass section emerges, reminiscent of Oasis’ B-side “Round Our Way.” The vocals remain the same as the previously released demo, but additional vocal overdubs contribute a distinctive flair. Time will tell which version I prefer more, but I’m currently leaning towards the original demo. Noel’s vocal delivery possessed a rawness and upfront presence there that this new version might have slightly overproduced.

John Lennon’s “Mind Games” holds a special place among my favorite solo-Beatles songs, so the idea of a Noel Gallagher cover is pure bliss for me. Fans have been frothing at the mouth for this track ever since a snippet was released by Noel a few years back. I don’t know if I’m simply burnt out from waiting too long, but I certainly have some strong opinions. It blows itself up, introducing production surprises much too early. While it undoubtedly deserves recognition and possesses undeniable beauty, it could have benefited from a more immersive build-up. Unfortunately, the song lays all its cards on the table from the very first second (of that 15+ second fade-in…), ultimately leading nowhere.

Our final track is “Don’t Stop…”, an Oasis song Noel pulled out of the archives and uploaded to streaming just over three years ago. This version is, once again, exactly the same. It gets a face-lift here with a nice orchestral section, reminiscent of The Beatles’ “Within You Without You”, but this feels like a major cop-out. Either the “archive” upload from years back was fake, which is what Liam Gallagher suggested on Twitter, calling the whole thing a “PR stunt“, or this version is simply cobbled together. This is rare, but I’m going to have to side with the ol’ singer. I hope I can warm up to it, because it is pure Gallagher gold, worthy of the Oasis days.

(c) Matt Crockett 2023

In no way am I disappointed in Noel Gallagher nor Council Skies. I just simply believe Abbey Road or Ziggy Stardust would have had trouble living up to almost a year’s worth of anticipation. Gallagher has mentioned in various interviews that he had a productive creative period during the COVID lock-down. Allegedly, he has already planned the next three albums for High Flying Birds, with the next being entirely acoustic. However, I believe that despite these ideas circulating, the selected songs for this particular lineup didn’t quite align as well as they could have. My biggest problem is that strong lack of cohesion, and when there is a spark of such- they’re identical (i.e. “Pretty Boy” and “Council Skies”). A lot of reviews I’ve read point to production as a massive flaw, such as string sections not being able to breathe, Noel’s voice being low in the mix, etc., although I didn’t hear any of that. I love the new, huge production style, trumpets and all, but they need original songs to properly carry them.

Vocally, Noel is treading new ground here. In multiple songs, he’s belting (“Open The Door”, “Council Skies”) and just has an overall more commanding voice. The inclusion of “personal” songs that may have slipped through the cracks truly reinforces the loose concept of the album and signifies Noel’s growth and maturity as a songwriter. With the presence of a track like “There She Blows!”, we encounter elements that are completely unfamiliar to devoted fans, and I wholeheartedly embrace and appreciate that aspect. This is definitely a new era for not only the High Flying Birds, but Noel Gallagher- in terms of both writing and performing.

Final Review: ★★★★/5

Writer’s Highlights: Pretty Boy, Dead to the World, There She Blows!, Council Skies (The Reflex Revision), Live Forever (Radio 2 Session)

Listen to Council Skies by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds here.

Alongside Garbage and Metric, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds will be touring the United States. Tickets are available here.

See you in Dallas, NG!!

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