In mid-February this year, the Brits held their 30th ceremony of popstar posing, tearful acceptance speeches and quite frankly hideous outfits. Amongst the artists du jour winning gongs were JLS (too horrible to aptly describe in words), Florence and the Machine (nowhere near as original as is promulgated by the music press) and Lady Gaga (now overshadowed by her outfits): as usual, by this time next year they’ll be all but forgotten, their platinum-selling albums found at the bottom of bargain bins in HMV and replaced by a new generation of ephemeral “superstars”. The two throwbacks to the past – artists rewarded for having careers spanning longer than one year in the spotlight – were Robbie Williams, picking up the Outstanding Contribution To Music award, and the now defunct Oasis collecting the Best Album of the Past 30 Years statuette for seminal classic ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’. A high point for the Britpop band to end on, surely? But no; Liam Gallagher aroused his usual controversy by not only beginning a verbal feud with Peter Kay, the show’s presenter, but also by failing to thank his brother Noel for writing and composing every song on the album. Including the ubiquitous, million-selling song Wonderwall. So they end as they began, clouded in scandal for their belligerence.
So, now you know why I’m reviewing an album that celebrates its fifteenth birthday in October, I’ll procrastinate no longer: you just can’t argue with its four million British sales (it’s the third biggest selling album ever in the UK). It’s frequently described as having defined the zeitgeist of the mid-90’s – while I can’t really comment, having been barely three years old at the time of its release, the Britpop era was about sales and mainstreaming indie as much as it was about the reclaiming of Britain’s music scene from the American grunge scene, and most of the songs sound like they were written to fill stadiums. Virtually all of the songs are golden; of the singles released, there’s the aforementioned Wonderwall with its tender guitars offset by Liam’s hoarse voice, the magnificent Don’t Look Back In Anger with a tidal wall of guitars and an unforgettable chorus (incidentally, my earliest memory is of listening to this song in the car!), the anthemic Some Might Say, their first number one single – although it has a tendency to become dull if over-listened to due to its fairly sluggish pace – and the summery tones of Roll With It that sparked the ‘battle of Britpop’ in the summer of 1995 with Blur’s Country House. Morning Glory is glorious for similar reasons to Don’t Look Back; it’s got an inevitably sing-a-long chorus (“What’s the story, morning glory/Need a little time to wake up, wake up”) and screeching guitars that make you want to jump around in a field with a can of beer. And I don’t even like beer.
The other album tracks aren’t to be glossed over, either; opening track Hello borrows significantly from a Gary Glitter song (don’t worry, one listen won’t turn you into a paedophile) and is a stomping prediction of what’s to come. She’s Electric is a frisky bundle of sugar with vocals which are imbued with a sweet innocence (not a common feature for Liam Gallagher, it must be said), and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to love it/want to skip along to it [delete where appropriate]. The two excerpts of The Swamp Song (here, both untitled) are throwaway gimmicks – if you’re genuinely intrigued by them, buy their B-sides compilation The Masterplan (also brilliant) – and Hey Now! is a dull, clunking disappointment. Cast No Shadow has often been lauded by critics for its Richard Ashcroft undertones, though I personally have always found it pretty boring. The lyrics have been called into question; but their ambiguity is what makes the tracks truly great – they appeal to everyone because everyone can interpret them as being an extension of their own feelings. Some lines are utterly ridiculous – for example, “she’s got a sister/and God only knows how I’ve missed her/and on the palm of her hand is a blister” – but it’s a trifle. In the grand scheme of tunes, riffs and populist choruses, a few duff lines go unnoticed. Yes, the wit of songs on Definitely Maybe (especially Married With Children, its conclusion) is missing, as is the ambition so heavy in Rock ‘n’ Roll Star. But so many bands nowadays are plagued with awkward one-liner lyrics while misplacing a decent tune that it’s a breath of fresh air to have mediocre lyrics.
But the album’s real triumph is a step back from the guitar-laden frenzies of the other tracks. While this is, quite simply, one of the best albums ever, its high point must be the curtain call, Champagne Supernova. Starting off calmly, with laid-back guitars and muted tones from Liam, it passes through an oddly emotive first chorus (“some day you will find me/caught beneath the landslide/in a champagne supernova in the sky”) in which he sounds like he’s straining to convey some sort of hidden softness so often lacking from his generally thuggish behaviour and builds until the guitars properly kick in on the second chorus. It’s like a massage for the ears; it’s truly wonderful. Clocking in at over seven minutes, it should stretch the listener’s patience as it never really evolves past two verses and the chorus, but it doesn’t. It’s epic. It’s brilliant. It’s like the end of a truly fantastic party. You have to wonder if Britpop fell apart less than two years after the album’s release because it had reached the end of the road, or simply because Oasis and the Oasis-esque wannabes that followed in their wake just couldn’t replicate this album.
If you don’t have it, buy it. If you do have it, listen to it. Face it, unless you own a copy of its predecessor, Definitely Maybe, you probably don’t have anything better to listen to.