Review Summary: You'll never change what's been and gone...
Heathen Chemistry was a crucial moment for Oasis. By 2002 the band that released the seminal 1-2 punch of Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory had almost as quickly burned out, throwing a sluggish combo that featured the overblown cocaine monster Be Here Now and the more focused yet less exciting Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. Essentially the group had drifted further and further away from what made them an instantaneously vital rock band originally, losing track in 1997 and losing two co-founding members by the millennium. Oasis really needed to produce an album akin to their classic sound, and for better or for worse Heathen Chemistry manages to achieve such a goal, on a superficial level at least.
Pound for pound, track for track, Heathen is the sturdiest and most consistent the group had released since 1995. ‘The Hindu Times’ opens on a confident note, driven by its warbling riff and infectious refrain “And I get so high I just can’t feel it”. Claims that its riff is heavily derived from a Stereophonics track is ultimately irrelevant – Noel has always pilfered ideas and sounds, and the notion that he may have done so here in the most overt manner in years is a positive things on Oasis’ globe, as typically the song proves to be all the more exciting and memorable for it, whilst winning no prizes for originality. The Chief touches also ground with one of his best 00’s slower numbers on ‘Little by Little’, which satisfies with a strong vocal performance and some of the man’s most refreshingly honest lyrics of the era. Less exciting but solid as a rock formulaically, ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’ works as a bog-standard Oasis ballad. Although it succeeds on a simplistic level - with its extremely familiar tone akin to ‘Wonderwall’ - it proves to be a hollow victory. It is neither as touching nor memorable as Wonderwall or as invigorating and cathartic as ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. Although such a criticism is partly down to songwriting quality the production of the track, and the album in general, is partly to blame for the tepid sound that permeates most of the 11 tracks on offer.
Take for instance ‘Force of Nature’, which has a decent stomp and hearty Noel vocal to its makeup yet remains ultimately limp. The production fails to capture or emphasise any grit and glosses over what is already a fairly average Oasis song in a set of similarly beige compositions. ‘Hung in a Bad Place’ features a wall of guitar noise that is less the Great Wall of China and more a rickety wooden fence; ‘Better Man’ contains tiny glimpses at what could be a swaggering, groovy rocker but ends up tripping up on its own baggy jeans with a lazy sounding arrangement and production; and ‘(Probably) All In The Mind’ aims for the Beatles ‘Rain’ but drowns under its own mediocrity.
When the production is little sparer and the tune a little softer, as it scarcely is on the album, there are a few shining moments worth noticing. In addition to ‘The Hindu Times’ and ‘Little by Little’, ‘She is Love’ succeeds in its own charming little way, getting by on a basic hum of organs, handclaps and a sugary sweet melody. Most surprising of all though is that Liam’s ‘Songbird’ might be the most memorable and catchy song on the album. It’s extremely simplistic in tune and lyric, Noel often joking that its title came from the fact that Liam wrote a song about his girlfriend (‘bird’ being the slang term) and put the two factors together – Song? Bird? …Songbird! But the short, sweet tune does not deserve to be mocked other than that, carried along by a ripple of acoustic guitar and sporadic piano twinkling which wrap around a reverbed, Lennon-esque delivery of surprisingly pretty lyrics, given it’s author’s reputation.
Heathen Chemistry is a mixed bag and suffers from the post-90’s uneven album syndrome Oasis seemed to develop. A cluster of songs shine, particularly ‘The Hindu Times’, ‘Little By Little’ and ‘Songbird’, yet at other times there is a sense that the production hinders a few promising moments and generally makes for a pretty average listen. Did Oasis manage to return to form of sorts? Yes. Was it a complete victory? No. In the end the album is simply too uneven and produced too poorly to lift it any higher than the handful of genuinely joyful tracks it offers, despite the fact it features the most standout tracks and sounds the most like classic Oasis in years.