Oasis: Be Here Now (25th Anniversary)
3.5 out of 5 stars
The hype surrounding Oasis' third studio album, Be Here Now, was nothing short of historic. After the back-to-back successes of Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, they were (arguably) the biggest band in the world and nationwide anticipation for their follow-up resulted in a fanatic media circus rivaling anything we’ve seen before or since. There were repeated stories of authoritation radio-play restrictions, journalists signing gag orders, a drug bust in London, tabloids mobbing the Gallaghers and endless binges of cocaine and guitar overdubs. To date, it's the only album I know of that had a "making of" documentary before it was released. In 1997, it was the fastest-selling album in British history, topped charts in 15 countries, and sold 1.47 million units in its first year. It has since been certified 6x platinum. But more interesting than the buildup (to my mind) has been the aftermath. Though well-received at the time, nearly every contemporary retrospective has been negative, and today, it's seen as either a misunderstood debacle, or a bloated, overproduced, irredeemable, coke-fueled ego trip.
Reasons vary: most reviewers cite the song lengths, cluttered mix and perceived decline in songwriting quality. Lead guitarist Noel Gallagher has disowned it. Lead singer Liam Gallagher says it's his favorite Oasis record. Some say it ended Britpop. Listening today, I find it to be a basically pleasant, inoffensive if overlong collection of mid-tempo rockers about being "all alone at dawn" and having "nothing to lose but [your] mind," and even though the overall mood is a little sullen, there's no half-realized songwriting anywhere on the project (if anything, certain ideas are explored TOO much). At 12 songs and 71 minutes long, it's cohesive, tuneful and well-written.
Yes, there are too many guitars. But it doesn't exactly smack of over-arrangement, because the guitars aren't playing 100 different melodies. They're not doing long, directionless prog-rock solos, or Rolling Stones-style "weaving". Rather they seem to be layering different pedal points to create a more full-bodied sound, and the overall effect is a dense morass of tight guitars mashed together into one great, sustained note, the low end rumbling, the high end buzzing. But aside from the guitars, every instrument is clearly defined, and somehow the huge, electric storm sits comfortably behind the vocals and every syllable is clearly-enunciated and discernible. You can only really hear an excess of sonic material if you're consciously looking for it.
"D'You Know What I Mean?" is my favorite. Gallagher's hook of "d'you know what I mean / yeah yeah" is nonsense, but it's still the catchiest song on the album, and he sells it with the same conviction he used for the even more nonsensical "Wonderwall," intoning in a flat, nasal mewl:
"I ain't good-looking, but I'm someone's child"
The 100-guitar orchestra approaches a Phil Spector-style "Wall of Sound", or maybe even shoegaze (the last 30 seconds -– a warm backwards-guitar feedback loop -– resembles the last 30 seconds of My Bloody Valentine's "To Here Knows When"), and like most songs on the album, it's written in the first-person, addressed to an individual whom the speaker holds in contempt, not quite mapping out the details of an epic romance a la Joni Mitchell, but painting a hazy picture through tossed-off snippets.
A few negatives: Every song sounds a little same-y. After listening to it twice, I can only hum one from memory ("D’You Know What I Mean?"). None of the songs has any reason to be longer than two minutes, and a good number of them veer well past the seven-minute mark without really building in energy or intensity. They mostly plod and repeat. The constant Beatles references inspire head-scratching more than anything else (“the fool on the hill” on D’ You Know What I Mean or “the long and winding road” on My Big Mouth). I have NEVER agreed with the (by now) compulsory Oasis-Beatles comparisons. Oasis sounds nothing like the Beatles. They barely sound like they’re from England. I’d have pegged them for SoCal, if anything. In fact, Blur, their contemporaries and (sometimes) rivals, sound a helluva lot more Beatles-ish (Beetlebum). Gallagher’s delivery (anthemic rock in a jaded, deadpan voice) occasionally verges into an obnoxious whine; “make me shyyiiiiiiine” on All Around the World or “nobody knyyooooowwws” on Stand By Me, and the choruses of the latter and Don’t Go Away get a little irritating. One overall problem with the presentation is that it feels impersonal. The video for "D'You Know What I Mean?" features Gallagher sulking behind dark sunglasses in an oversized windbreaker and singing with both hands in his pockets, and the cover artwork consists of a random photo of the group behind an 18th century mansion surrounded by a collection of props (including a Rolls Royce in the pool), a bizarrely materialistic counterpoint to the album’s zen koan title.
But hey, who cares if every song sounds the same? I couldn't tell the songs apart the first time I heard Exile on Main Street either. Be Here Now doesn't exactly live up to its reputation as a colossal failure. Yes, it's a little self-serious. Gone are the throwaways of "I know a girl named Elsa / she's into Alka-Seltzer" ("Supersonic"). It's more of a piece of product than an album, but it's not empty gloss. It's a highly-accessible set of indie/pop sides which presupposes not to be overthought.