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Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Council Skies review: Oasis brother relaxes into big, bittersweet tunes

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Next year Oasis will celebrate the 30th anniversary of their eight-times platinum-selling debut album, Definitely Maybe. When I say celebrate, I doubt there’ll be a party – given the fractious state of the Gallagher brothers’ relationship – but I assume that in their separate, swanky southern mansions, the siblings will break out some booze and cigarettes (Liam still smokes and Noel is rumoured to have stashed more than £30,000 worth of dressing room fags since quitting five years ago). Meanwhile, Gen Xers having palpitations over how many decades it’s been since they first bawled along to “Live Forever” at the indie disco can soothe their souls with Council Skies: the mature and melodic fourth album from Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.

It’s an easygoing and expansive record, which finds Gallagher relaxing into his knack for big, bittersweet tunes. His whole band is playing for the first time (usually, mostly it’s just him) and the communal spirit generates a new sense of space. Emotions soar and swoop, while the rhymes roll predictably into place. “Gonna write you a song/ Won’t take me long...” croons the 56-year-old Britpopper on the lovely, lullsome “Dead to the World”. It’s a dreamy ode to feeling nothing and giving up, and one that Gallagher (who announced his split from second wife Sara MacDonald in January) described as autobiographical. “If love ain’t enough to make it alright,” he sighs over the gentle strum of his acoustic guitar. “It’s too bad.” The bass line swings low as a pendulum while his ennui is lifted by a gently shaken maraca and the warm thermals of a Parisian street cafe accordion. Even Liam likes “Dead to the World”, having tweeted: “How can such a mean spirited little man write such a beautiful song?”

There’s a touch of Ennio Morricone to the way he gives these instruments little adventures of their own, just as the western composer let trumpets or whistling motifs blow across vintage deserts. If you peer close enough at the album cover of Definitely Maybe, you’ll notice that the TV in the background is screening Gallagher’s favourite, Morricone-scored film: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The sleepy drift of “Dead to the World” is balanced by the string-backed momentum of “I’m Not Giving Up Tonight” on which Gallagher presses us to “keep dancing to the sound of the music”. The pace picks up further with the grimy drive of “Pretty Boy” (featuring Johnny Marr) and the thudding drums on “Open the Door, See What You Find”, which has a slightly psychedelic vibe. You can hear the lyricist of “slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball” at work in lines such as “a sunrise in the palm of your hand/ Think twice, don’t put your head in the sand”. He’s there again on “There She Blows!” with “There she waits/ Meet you at the pearly gates”. And on “Easy Now”, with its Beatles-esque chords (and melodic nod to oldie hit “She’s Electric”) propping up the simplicity of “I’ll be there/ I’ll wait for you, I swear”. Fresh imagery sloshes together with cliche into festival sunset singalong universality.

The title track is pure summer, swung with breezy, bell-bottomed, slightly bossa nova-ed percussion. It was written during the strange days of lockdown, something you can hear as the singer searches for magical moments in an unpredictable world. “Council Skies” takes inspiration from a book of paintings of people on council estates by Sheffield artist Pete McKee. The album’s artwork features photographs (by Kevin Cummins) of places from Gallagher’s youth. He told “There’s Burnage Community Centre where we used to go glue sniffing, the Apollo, the shops of Levenshulme, and Ardwick and Piccadilly Station [...] it’s got a very council estate, northern feel to it.” Slouching against the slightly post-punk bass of “Think of a Number”, Gallagher bemoans a cruel world.

Things end in the brassy blast of optimism that is “We’re Gonna Get There in the End”. There’s a stomping drum and tambourine. Gallagher urges fans to “remember the dream you’re keeping alive” and whacks out the consoling platitudes to chords that feel as easy to sink into as the sofa decorating the sleeve of Definitely Maybe. Similarly, Council Skies is guaranteed to make the old fans feel right at home.