I’ve defended Standing on the Shoulder of Giants on this blog and continue to do so to this day. I thought that in spite of including some subpar songs over underrated corkers, that album was still a good effort and an interesting change in direction for Oasis. Sadly though it didn’t stick, as in the face of indifference they ditched the drum loops and toned down the mellotron almost immediately for the next album, Heathen Chemistry.
This is the only album in the Oasis discography that I haven’t listened to, at least not in full; I’ve heard a couple of singles but that’s about it. I’m also aware of its position in Oasis’ history, as the second era of the band with Andy Bell and Gem Archer took to the studio for the first time, and Noel once again shared songwriter duties with his bandmates. The reason it has taken me this long to get to Heathen Chemistry is that this is cited by a good chunk of the fandom to be the worst album of the lot. The other chunk typically cite SOTSOG as the worst, so I’m more than likely to fall in the former camp. However, I believe that for some forms of media there is no such thing as a ‘worst’. Instead, a ‘least good’. For example, I believe that Peter Davison is the least good Doctor Who. Not the worst though, there is no such thing as a bad Doctor. I’m willing (Or rather, hoping) to bet that the same logic can apply here, that Heathen Chemistry may at worst be just the least good Oasis album. Or am I just being hopelessly optimistic? Only one way to find out.
Track #1 – The Hindu Times
I normally see strong praise for this one, with it being cited as one of the highpoints of 21st century Oasis. But I’m going to be controversial right off the bat and say I don’t see the hype. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, it just strikes me as a ‘greatest hits’ kind of Oasis song; the kind of single you’d find tacked onto a singles compilation. The lyrics are standard, Liam’s performance seems a little subdued for my tastes, the structure itself is almost note for note lifted from Be Here Now (the song), and while it has an excellent guitar riff it’s hard to give Noel credit for it seeing as it was borrowed from Stereophonics. It has grown on me over time but it’s not a world beater compared to Rock n Roll Star and Acquiesce.
Track #2 – Force of Nature
My first thought as we transitioned into Force of Nature was ‘Hang on a minute, isn’t this Nightclubbing by Iggy Pop?’. That opening is a dead ringer. Whatever the case, this song really does take its time to get going and sounds downright lethargic. The chorus is decent though, Noel is giving it a damn good go which I can commend. I’m not clicking with this one because of the tempo, this feels like it should be faster.
Track #3 – Hung In A Bad Place
Gem Archer’s first song for the band and it’s a no from me. Here’s some choice lyrics: “It’s hasta mañana/You’re on your own banana skin feet now” and “Tarzan on harmonies for free, yeah”. Even Liam sounds unenthused. If he cant be bothered with it, why should I?
Track #4 – Stop Crying Your Heart Out
It’s one of the band’s most famous tracks, and probably their most famous 2000’s track, for a reason. Noel’s still playing it to this day, and he recently dedicated it to the England team in the event that they cock up royally in Qatar at the end of the year. From the stone-cold piano notes to Liam’s vocals that make you feel like you can cry on his shoulder, this is one of two definite highlights of Heathen Chemistry.
Track #5 – Songbird
And here’s the other highlight. While I feel like I don’t appreciate The Hindu Times as much as I should, I think I love this song far too much. Liam takes the writing pen once again and blows Little James out of the water to create this beautifully simple song that contrasts from any other Oasis single. Instead of layers and layers of guitars both electric and bass, we get something a lot more minimalist to suit Liam’s romantic proclamation that “She’s not anyone”. Acoustic guitar, harmonium and a bit of piano is all you need to create possibly the greatest hidden gem in Oasis’ list of songs that isn’t a b-side. In my SOTSOG review I graded Little James with a C. This time, Liam gets an A.
Track #6 – Little by Little
Moving right along now from Liam’s single to Noel’s. Again his performance is superb, he sounds much more confident than he has in the 90s, perhaps down to the fact that by this stage he is fully on the wagon and not the primary songwriter. This is also one of the better efforts in the lyrics department but I have to chuckle at the fact that Noel gives us one of his traditional lines of nonsense (“True perfection has to be imperfect”), only to follow it up with an acknowledgement that it makes no sense (“I know that sounds foolish but it’s true”). Decent but I am a bit concerned that we’ve now blown through practically all the singles. Considering the album-exclusive songs we’ve heard so far, that does not bode well.
Track #7 – A Quick Peep
An instrumental? Ok…Sounds like something suited for a scene in Auf Weidersehen, Pet. Not for this album though. Swamp Song got a pass from me on The Masterplan because it was loud, in your face and pure Oasis. This? This is just pish.
Track #8 – (Probably) All In My Mind
Actually a rather pleasant surprise. The very whimsical and mysterious start got my attention. What follows once the song gets going isn’t going to set the world on fire but I’d say it’s the best non-single on the album thus far. In fact it almost sounds like it was a leftover from SOTSOG; there’s an undercurrent of psychedelia in there.
Track #9 – She Is Love
Three guesses what this one’s about. I think this is essentially Noel’s answer to Songbird, just with a dash of electric guitar added into the mix. Unfortunately comparing it to Songbird just makes this song sound more shite than it really is. It just sounds dull and insipid and I guarantee it was penned by Noel as soon as he heard Songbird – Probably thought ‘I can do better than that, I can make a single just as good as that’. No, mate. Not this time.
Track #10 – Born On A Different Cloud
I know Oasis love their Beatles but Jesus H Christ, they may aswell have called this one John Lennon: The Song. I had to check this wasn’t a cover of a song from the White Album because it sure as hell sounds like it. Regardless, it’s an OK effort and Liam’s showing that Songbird wasn’t a fluke. He’s definitely a capable songwriter.
Track #11 – Better Man
Shallow. Would probably be an alright way to get the crowd pumped up during either the midpoint of a show or at the start of an encore. But for the album? Too little too late. I think it should have been in the place of A Quick Peep seeing as it’s primarily driven by the music rather than the singing.
Bonus Track – The Cage
What was the f*cking point of that?
After SOTSOG and the negative reception it received I think Oasis got the hint that they had to go back to a familiar, purely rock driven sound filled with cheery optimism. However, they also had to avoid doing what they did in Be Here Now and go full force lest it sound overblown and up its own arse. As a result we have this album, which I think can best be described as diluted Oasis. I think that sums up the band from this point on, really. Taste’s the same but it is far weaker than before.
It’s the familiar sound but it lacks punch. It coasts along, makes you bob your head occasionally, but you don’t feel like you’re hearing classic after classic. It’s just song after song. Some are good. Some are shrugworthy. To its credit this album isn’t a slog, in fact it moves at a fairly brisk pace. It’s just that it never really gets going, it just seems to be dead set at coasting along steadily. It’s a ‘safe’ album, one that Oasis knew would get them back in the good graces of the casuals and would gently tease the hardcore fans for a while. The only positives I can give this album is that Liam hits his stride as a songwriter here, and even though I’ve always been fine with Noel’s early efforts it’s great to hear his singing has improved. But that’s all I’ve got I’m afraid.
Sorry to any fans but I think Heathen Chemistry does live up to its reputation as Oasis’ weakest album. It’s passable at best. I was tempted to argue that it was on about the same level as Dig Out Your Soul except the singles on that album are just as, if not more, exceptional, plus it has an excellent non-single track in the form of Bag It Up. Nothing on Heathen Chemistry compares to it. So yeah. Consider this the Peter Davison of the Oasis chronology.
Epilogue – The Hindu Times, demo version:
Hi, sorry, not quite done yet.
I’m writing this about a week after I finished this entry ready for publishing at some point in July, it’s a bright sunny Saturday and I’ve come across the demo version of Hindu Times. And it’s night and day compared to the official version.
They’re barely the same song for a start. Sure the tune, structure and guitar riffs are the same but the lyrics are very, very different. Whilst we’re used to Liam boasting about getting so high he just can’t feel it and giving us standard Oasis swagger, instead we get Noel lamenting about his ‘babe’ (I’m willing to bet it’s Liam – “When you leave, yeah the world won’t care”) getting so high they just can’t feel it. The final line of the chorus is also changed to “You’ve got no sunshine, you’ve got rain”. Ouch.
The roughness of the demo and the slower tempo also works in the song’s favour and adds to the attitude Noel is displaying. Combined with the lyrics he sounds melancholic, depressed and pissed off, like it’s falling apart before his eyes. Almost acts as a sequel to The Girl in the Dirty Shirt, getting her second chance and pissing it away to get high, with Noel dragged into the doldrums with her. It’s bleak. And I guess that’s why it didn’t stay that way for long.
Noel most likely came to the conclusion that he was done being so bleak, so he re-wrote the song to try and capture the plastic optimism and bluster of the Morning Glory days. On the one hand that’s fair enough, keeping the generally downbeat nature of SOTSOG self-contained would have worked in that album’s favour and kept it the black sheep of the family. On the other hand, I’d say keep a few songs like this but mix and match with pick-me-up songs like Little By Little and Better Man, then culminate with Stop Crying Your Heart Out. Heathen Chemistry could have been a transitional album, melding the best of both worlds for Oasis with the crown jewel being Hindu Times with its signature psychedelic guitar riff.
Alas, a perfect world we do not live in, and Heathen Chemistry remains the low point for Oasis.