Favorite Albums: Oasis, ‘Heathen Chemistry’

Oasis is a band you either love, or love to hate. I’ve been a fan of them probably since hearing “Live Forever” on WBCN way back in the day (I love how it starts off with its slow, slinky drums before Liam Gallagher’s northern sneer kicks in). And those who are fans have their own particular favorite record of theirs…the fans-from-the-beginning will of course sing the high praises of their 1994 debut Definitely Maybe, and the majority will agree that 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? is indeed a fine album. They will also most likely agree that 1997’s Be Here Now is a bloated and self-indulgent mess. And…yeah, all their other albums tend to be seen as leftover table scraps.

Heathen Chemistry from 2002, however, is a band finally deciding to mature. By this time, bassist Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan, guitarist Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs, and drummer Tony MacCarroll had left the band, replaced by ex-Ride bassist Andy Bell, guitarist Gem Archer and drummer Alan White. The ever-feuding Gallagher brothers were the only remaining original members. Perhaps the newer line-up was a plus, as it changed their sound considerably. Heathen Chemistry sounds like a band finally taking themselves seriously and it contains some of the Gallaghers’ finest songwriting.

The record kicks off with first single “The Hindu Times”, a strong rocker similar to those from Definitely Maybe with an added nod to psychedelia, with a noted sitar-like riff from Noel. Unlike their previous records, this sounds a hell of a lot less like posturing and more like an honest love song.

It’s followed up by interesting deep cuts “Force of Nature” (a boozy Lennonesque blues track featuring Noel on vocals) and “Hung in a Bad Place” (a boisterous two-chord rocker) before hitting gold with the powerful and lovely ballad “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”. It might be yet another nod to their heroes the Beatles — this one definitely has a 1967 Pepper feel — but it’s a gorgeous song and one of their best. I sometimes wish they’d play this rather than “Wonderwall” on the radio!

It’s followed immediately by what would end up as the fourth single from the record, “Songbird”, and the first single written by Liam instead of Noel. It’s a short and simple semi-acoustic ballad that has perhaps a bit of REM in there, but it’s a nice track and shows that Liam’s songwriting had improved vastly over the last few years.

And to fill out the first half of the album, Noel comes back with a fantastic track and third single “Little By Little” — a double-A side with a later track we’ll hit momentarily — and it’s a deeply personal one compared to their previous songs. It’s one of Noel’s best to date, and one can tell he put is all into it.

The second half kicks in with a brief instrumental interlude, “A Quick Peep”, written not by a Gallagher this time out but Andy Bell. It’s like a miniature entr’acte before we’re brought back into the sunshine glow of yet another Beatles nod, “(Probably) All in the Mind”. Intriguingly, this song sounds a bit more like late-60s Stones than Beatles, despite the obvious title reference to Yellow Submarine and the White’s drumming nod to “Ticket to Ride”.

It’s followed by “She Is Love”, the other half of the above-mentioned double-A single, and it’s another powerhouse track from Noel. It’s a nice acoustic track that is not only devoid of any of the trademark Oasis swagger, it’s full-on that trademark Oasis psychedelia and full of heart and joy.

Next up is an amazing song written by Liam that definitely should have been a single. It’s dark and brooding, and while the lyrics and subject matter may be a bit simple compared to their other more well-known songs, it’s nonetheless a stellar track that helps finish out the album.

The last song (plus its hidden track “The Cage” at the far end) is “Better Man”, which feels like another stab at post-Beatles Lennon, especially during his Some Time In New York phase. It’s grouchy and full of sloppy, crunchy blues guitar. It does feel a little bit like an afterthought but it’s actually a perfect final song for the album as it helps end it on a positive, uplifting note. It’s the band closing out the record on a loose, freeform jam that makes the entire record worthwhile.

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I wouldn’t say Heathen Chemistry is Oasis’ best album, nor is it the most perfect one, but for me it’s their most consistently enjoyable. It was a step in the right direction for them, one they needed to take after working on the same classic sound over multiple records. The new style was hinted at with 2000’s Standing On the Shoulder of Giants, but that particular record felt more like a transitional one than a thorough evolution. This was Oasis growing up, and it fit them incredibly well.

It shows even now in the brothers’ solo output; Noel’s latest work with his High Flying Birds moniker shines with his stellar songwriting chops, and Liam’s work both with Beady Eye (essentially Oasis sans Noel) and on his own is just as strong. They may still be the same quarreling brothers who can’t be in the same room without eventually throwing a punch (their verbal snipes at each other on Twitter and elsewhere are often quite hilarious), but that hasn’t gotten in the way of them remaining fine musicians.