Mourning Glory: Council Skies by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds Reviewed

Noel Gallagher's latest long player has been heralded as a return to his roots, says JR Moores, but he couldn't find his way back to where he came from even if Ringo drew him a map

The marketing for High Flying Birds’ fourth album suggests Noel Gallagher has returned to his roots. Not literally, of course. One of the many ways he emulated The Beatles was to move down South as soon as it was possible. The title Council Skies refers to Gallagher’s humble beginnings, while the photograph on its cover was taken at the housing estate that now stands on the site of Manchester City’s former football ground at Maine Road. Gallagher’s beloved club, currently based at The Etihad, is much more successful these days because it is owned by Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi royal family.

Speaking of tyrannical rim-wipes, Matty Healy of The 1975 has gone viral again. No, I’m not talking about his bigoted podcast appearances or lecherous onstage "antics". (Seriously, did none of Swifty’s aids run a background check on this problematic nepo-manbaby?) They say even a stopped clock is right two times a day. Perhaps in Healy’s case, twice daily he does something right-wing. Occasionally though, he is also sometimes partly correct, such as when waxing lyrical about Oasis. "There is not one person going to a High Flying Birds or Liam Gallagher gig that would not rather be at an Oasis gig," Healy told Tom Power (who is Canadian, so can be forgiven if he really couldn’t give a fuck). "There is not one person that’s there going, ‘You know what? I loved Definitely Maybe but my favourite thing is fucking Noel Gallagher’s High Flying…’ Do me a favour!"

In begging the Gallaghers to settle their differences, Healy even claimed that Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? are both in the top ten greatest albums of all time and Oasis are "potentially, right now, still… the coolest band in the world". It begs the question of how many others he’s heard, the semi-sentient eyebrow mannequin. Still, if the multimillion offers to headline a few massive shows isn’t enough to tempt the Gallaghers towards reconciliation, there is now an added incentive. "I would die at an Oasis gig," promised Healy.

Of course Matty Healy can’t comprehend the deterrent miseries of touring for months on end alongside a vain and erratic loudmouth with an impossibly bloated ego. He’s the one person in The 1975 who’s never had to play in a band with Matty Healy. What if he does get to see a reformed incarnation of Oasis? Who will that even involve? It’ll probably be the brothers Gall’ plus a pick-a-mix assortment from the likes of Neil Finn, Steve Cradock, Sean Lennon, John Power, Mani, Nick McCabe, Matt from Dodgy and Gem "Switzerland" Archer. Even with an original or "classic" line-up on the cards, there’s a good chance it could cause death by disappointment because — news flash from the olden days — Oasis didn’t do much onstage and were regularly eclipsed by their superior support bands.

Then there are the fellow fans you have to worry about. When I saw Oasis, three or four lads who were standing behind us couldn’t be bothered to trek to the festival toilets so they just whipped out their periwinkles and dribbled piss down the grassy hill towards our budget trainers. Later in the set, we fled to the safety of the Radio 1 tent where the crowd were gleefully chanting "Oasis are shite! Oasis are shite!…" The band who were playing there attempted to quell such disrespect, which wasn’t very rock & roll of the embarrassed-looking rival headliners. Needless to say it was Muse.

The only time I, not to mention many other people, saw Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye, there were so many men there with the same haircut it was like attending the annual general meeting of the PWLS (Paul Weller Lookalike Society). It was there I learned to never trust an audience who would rather see their beer flying through the air than travelling in the appropriate direction of their own gullets.

One thing I did take from seeing Beady Eye is that, like it or not, Liam Gallagher does have some kind of mysterious, magical, irrepressible aura. An innate glow that cannot be denied. Yes, he can do as little as mangabey-spread his knees, whine like a faulty siren and wave his little tambourine with all the rhythm of a grasshopper in a tumble drier. His coolness remains intact despite our qualms and no matter how many reprehensible or disappointing things he says or does. He is, essentially, the Snoop Dogg of Britpop. He has the rock singer’s equivalent of the natural comedian’s "funny bones", whatever that is. They used to call it "the X factor" before reality TV reapplied that phrase to any member of the public with a cruise-ship-worthy set of pipes.

It must feel weird to be his elder brother. Before his reputation was squandered in a blizzard of gak-addled hubris, it was Noel who had both the drive and the talent without which Oasis would still be rattling around to polite smatterings in a Swan Street basement. Liam’s star quality notwithstanding, Noel is the sole reason anybody knows their surname. Yet his little brother frontman will always be the cooler and more hero-worshipped of the siblings. It’s no wonder this grates.

Recently heard bemoaning the lack of modern mainstream mavericks, Noel is hardly reclaiming any radical credentials with Council Skies. It’s more a return to the roots of High Flying Birds than anything longer ago. Gone is David Holmes whose production helped to make 2017’s Who Built The Moon? not "experimental" exactly (as some people deemed it) but at least sonically adventurous. Relatively speaking. This is Noel Gallagher, after all, who Luke Haines has long had pegged as "Britain’s Least Psychedelic Man". Co-producing with the gaffer this time is Paul Stacey, who engineered High Flying Birds’ debut album and before that was knocking around during Oasis’ gruelling post-peak decline. The result is less challenging than junior sudoku.

"Keep dancing to the sound of the music," Gallagher advises at the beginning of a collection that’s about as boogie-friendly as David Gower’s cricket commentary. At least that’ll ensure that concertgoers’ lager might remain in the plastic pint pot.

Noel Gallagher by Matt Crockett

The whole album was written over lockdown which helps to explain why most of the songs sound like acoustic ballads that have been fleshed out later in the studio. The embellishments to Gallagher’s strumming include nice thick basslines, subtle keyboard touches and soul-singer backing vocals. The most conspicuous accompaniment is the almost deafening orchestration, at various points evoking that of George Martin (naturally), John Barry’s Bondisms or, when riffing on ‘Raspberry Beret’ for ‘Open The Door, See What You Find’, Wendy & Lisa’s arrangements with Prince.

By its composer and reviewers alike, ‘Pretty Boy’ has been likened to ‘A Forest’ by The Cure and presumably hiring Robert Smith to remix it was an attempt to appoint him as an endorser rather than hired gun. In reality, much like the title track, ‘Pretty Boy’ has more in common with Stereophonics.

Those hoping that a reflective Gallagher might revive the romantic magic of the brilliant B-sides he whipped up so casually during Oasis’ early run might find there are songs here that evoke that mood but don’t quite match up in other, more crucial ways. That said, he comes damn close on ‘Trying To Find A World That’s Been And Gone’ which certainly stirs memories of just how weirdly dystopian everything became in 2020. Alternatively, it could serve as the sound of Gallagher reflecting on his past, the life and career he has since led, his creative downturn and own inescapable mortality.

The twanging stomp of ‘Love Is A Rich Man’ provides some respite from the string-laden introspection. It’s a livelier number yet also structured with peaks and troughs, offering variety both within itself and the album as a whole. However, the true star of the show is ‘We’re Gonna Get There In The End’ even though this is, technically speaking, a bonus track, presumably because it didn’t fit the mood elsewhere. More unashamedly optimistic than Paul McCartney scoring a Care Bears reboot, the song is equipped with an immediately anthemic melody and backed by extra-stirring Bacharachian brass. Before its chorus had kicked in, even this cynical listener was leaping onto his three-geared bicycle to soar down a scenic country hill where he could pick up some freshly baked baguettes and several bunches of flowers to share with local wildlife volunteers. And anyone who doesn’t have that exact same reaction will be eternally cursed with what’s clinically known as ‘Heart of Braverman’.

Despite endless rumours of an Oasis reformation, both Gallaghers’ schedules suggest this won’t be happening for the foreseeable. Council Skies‘ arena tour is booked into the horizon and Liam reckons he’s going to be performing Definitely Maybe next year with his solo band.

So it’s unlikely that when he moves into Downing Street, Sir Starmer will reimagine 1997 by dancing stiffly with Angela Rayner while the resurrected Oasis perform a live rendition of ‘Fade In-Out’ with guest slide-guitarist Johnny Depp looking like Lost Highway‘s Mystery Man after a six-month fromage bender.

Who to book instead? If it is going to be a toss(er)-up between High Flying Birds and The 1975, Starmer would be advised to go with the act least likely to reignite Labour’s antisemitism crisis. Council Skies‘ strongest (bonus) track is miles better than that one by D:Ream but as unfortunate and unintended as it is, the idea that we are only going to get there "in the end" sounds too much like we’re about to enter a Soviet-style sacrificial slog towards only mildly plausible societal betterment. Alastair Campbell wouldn’t have liked that message.

In 1996, the year before New Labour’s landslide electoral victory, Noel Gallagher had accepted Oasis’ Brit Award for Best British Group with the following endorsement: "There are seven people in this room tonight who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country. That is me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White, Alan McGee… and Tony Blair!" At that point in the speech, some viewers just hoped they would never have a nickname like Bonehead. "Power to the people!", Noel continued. In his mind, he may have been compensating for a statement he’d made earlier that night, when ‘Wonderwall’ had won Best Video. Directly addressing the multitude whence he’d risen, Noel blurted, "I’ve got nowt to say, except I’m extremely rich and you lot aren’t. Ha ha."

It was a watershed moment, really. One which marked a point of no return to his roots.

Council Skies is out today on Sour Mash

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