There are two raging questions that come to mind when listening to Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ latest LP, Who Built the Moon?. The first surrounds quality in the mainstream. There are hyped releases that, annoyingly, sucked – Royal Blood and Arcade Fire’s offerings culpable – and albums that exceeded my expectations (Wolf Alice, Benjamin Clementine and St. Vincent). There’s also a couple of big albums that should have gained fonder reviews: Morrissey’s Low in High School and Björk’s Utopia. I thought that Utopia would get all-across-the-boards love and be immune to criticism; it just shows one can never predict how various albums will be received.
The second question I wanted to raise is The Big One. Is Liam Gallagher’s As You Were a stronger fighter than Who Built the Moon?. The younger Gallagher fits into the first point; the former Oasis frontman created a storm of speculation that wasn’t really backed by any longevity – his album had a few half-bright motions but failed to linger in the mind. If Liam doggedly sticks to an Oasis-lite format on his debut – a cross between Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (2000) and Heathen Chemistry (2002) – then the elder Gallagher has broken the rulebooks and changed the game. Who Built the Moon? is Noel streamlining the personnel, and ensuring the songs are ambitious and unpredictable. Gallagher is, of this year, entering his sixth decade of life – but despite its child-like title, Who Built the Moon? contains more spirit than we’ve heard since the early Oasis days.
Lead single ‘Holy Mountain’ has sent the Internet into a frenzy with its resemblance to Ricky Martin’s ‘She Bangs’. Many felt ‘Holy Mountain’s chorus-clarion (“She fell/she fell/Right under my spell…”) was grinding hips with Martin’s 2000-released hit. But every theory is wrong. The song is a beast that grows better and more addicting every time you hear it.
‘Fort Knox’ is less a hyper-secure bunker, more an intergalactic, arm-the-war-machines song that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Muse record. Huge percussion and female chants make it a trippy, experimental song that features very little of Noel and is all about the composition. It races, builds and terrifies – a stunning song that brings in so many sounds and emotions it is hard to take it all in!
‘Holy Mountain’ keeps the atmosphere big – but with Noel on up-front vocal duties, it’s a more conventional track, albeit one with few familiar colours. Again, it pushes away both the acoustic and electric guitar, and introduces proper eclecticism. ‘She Taught Me How to Fly’ is another hyperdrive banger that, although more muted than ‘Fort Knox’, is a hazed-out, wide-eyed beauty. This is Gallagher embracing elements of 1960s psychedelia and pop – what The Beatles might have recorded if they started in 2017! It’s modern yet classic; tender but imbued with racing percussion and epic production values.
‘Black and White Sunshine’ is what many Noel Gallagher fans might expect: a song that ties strong to his previous two solo albums, and has hints of mid-career Oasis. It’s a memorable, solid number that takes a few spins before its true beauty gets into the heart – and when it does; it’ll stay there. ‘If Love Is the Law’, again, puts the beats high-up but showcases Noel’s voice – here, it sings about crimes, the law and this rare/forbidden love. Gallagher’s always been a bit unpredictable, quality-wise, when it comes to lyrics, but on this song he avoids cliché couplets – whereas some tracks suffer lumpen rhymes and inspid lines.
The title-track is, oddly, one of the few missteps on the record. It sounds too similar to earlier numbers, but lacks the same appeal. It has plenty of swamp-swagger – but I felt something a little calmer would be appropriate towards the end of such a busy record. What the title-track does showcase, however, is how keen Gallagher is to take his music in strange new directions – overthrowing the sound of his first two solo albums!
I was willing to allow a little leeway with Who Built the Moon?, assuming it was going to be a grower whose balding head was a sign of a maturing artist. In fact, after a two-year collaboration with producer David Holmes, we have an album that’ll silence many doubters. With Holmes on production duties, we hear sounds of the East and French psychedelic-pop, rock, disco; experiments with the electric; and an abandonment of conventional methods. Who Built the Moon? is apocalyptic and cinematic; dense and wondrous. It’s able to keep the listener interested, hopping through decades and genres, landscapes and vibes – all whilst retaining some of Gallagher’s key characteristics.
The result is a record stronger than anything Noel Gallagher – as a High Flying Birds leader or Oasis innovator – has come up with since the early-90s. His third solo album could have been a flop, but Gallagher’s willingness to push boundaries has paid off. Who Built the Moon? has the potential to steal the ‘Best Album of 2017’ crown – but if it doesn’t, it will be in most critics’ top-ten lists for sure. You can compare ‘Holy Mountain’ with Ricky Martin’s ‘She Bangs’ all you like, but the truth is this – Ricky Martin could not dream of an album as dexterous, mind-melting and alluring as Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ Who Built the Moon?.