Oasis’ third album, Be Here Now, takes its name from a remark John Lennon once made about the message of rock & roll. The allusions to Oasis’ history-making predecessors scarcely end there. The new album’s songs are dotted with lines about the ”fool on the hill” and a ”long and winding road,” and the wide-screen soar and sing-along finale of ”All Around the World” are pure, unabashed ”Hey Jude.” Noel Gallagher, the band’s songwriter, lead guitarist, and visionary, admitted to Q magazine that the melody of ”The Girl in the Dirty Shirt” was derived from the White Album’s ”Cry Baby Cry.”
Of course, none of these references is accidental. Part of the fun of being an Oasis fan is watching them encapsulate 30 or so years of rock-star antics into a mere three. Since crashing brashly onto the scene in 1994, these pub-headed British disciples of all things rock have conquered the charts, been cleared of drug charges, married actresses, and nearly broken up (thanks to the Kinks-like sibling rivalry between Noel and his lead-singing brother, Liam). Even their music, with its nods to the Fab Four, T. Rex, and the Jam, among many, presents a magical history tour of British rock. (The U.K. press equates them with the Beatles, too, in terms of their positive impact on the country’s morale.)
The next logical step for Oasis, beyond tossing TV sets out of hotel-room windows, was to make an album of extremely long jams, cameo appearances by superstar pals, and sonic window dressing. That’s precisely what they’ve done on Be Here Now. In 1997, the pop landscape has been dramatically altered: R&B is now the new pop, and a rock ”band” can consist of two geeks fronting a battery of machines. Oasis either don’t know or care. They’re still angling for the set-in-Stones title of the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band, and on Be Here Now they work overtime to crown themselves.
There’s always been something monolithic about Oasis’ sound. Be Here Now, though, is a truly massive attack, a thick-as-Guinness crunch of guitars and drums all cranked to 11. As if they felt they had to utilize every last bit of space on the recording tapes, producers Owen Morris and Noel Gallagher cram each track with keyboards, psychedelicized orchestral codas, sound effects, and layer upon layer of Noel’s twisting, shimmering guitar overdubs. Sometimes the approach works: Band-on-the-run bashers like ”My Big Mouth” and ”I Hope, I Think, I Know” are 100-proof sonic rush, all harried energy. ”Don’t Go Away” has the weathered stateliness of an old British cathedral, and singer Liam delivers lyricist Noel’s stabs at articulation — ”Damn my education/I can’t find the words to say about the things caught in my mind” — with clear-cut feeling. Liam may be a loud-mouthed pub crawler, yet he’s rarely sounded so earnest than he does on Be Here Now.
Just as often, though, their attempts at grandeur backfire. Much of the album is a messy, mucky keg o’ sound that constantly threatens to spill over and drown Noel’s innately melodic songs. First, it’s hard to imagine a worse-mixed album by a major act; the guitars feel like blasts of static. The blame shouldn’t be laid on engineers entirely. The concision of Oasis’ finest moments — the transcendent ”Live Forever” from Definitely Maybe, the elegance of ”Wonderwall” and ”Cast No Shadow,” both from (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? — is absent. In its place are what Oasis, like so many before them, mistake for progress: wanky wah-wah solos and songs that amble on too long. (Did the lumbering, if subtly hooky, ”D’You Know What I Mean?” really have to run seven minutes?) ”Fade In-Out” is an attempt at Zep-style blooze (featuring band buddy Johnny Depp on slide guitar), making Oasis appear as prematurely stodgy as the Wallflowers. Where is the same Noel Gallagher who’s collaborated with techno innovators like Goldie and the Chemical Brothers?
The answer lies partly in the packaging. On the cover of their first two albums, Oasis were shown in, respectively, a flat and on the street, approachable blokes killing time. On Be Here Now, they’re spread around the pool of Noel’s new estate. Like that photo, the music reflects a need for escape from the Oasis-mania of the last two years. ”D’You Know What I Mean?” and ”My Big Mouth” warn fans against looking to the band for answers, while ”The Girl in the Dirty Shirt” and ”Don’t Go Away” ask loved ones to stay near, as if they’re the only things grounding Noel. The aural force field Oasis have constructed around themselves also feels like self-preservation, a musical oasis. They sound more ferocious and confident than ever, yet less intimate, more distanced. For better or worse, Oasis have become rock stars figuratively walled in. Given their ambitions, it’s no wonder. B