The biggest band in Britain grinds on, and as usual when an Oasis single toils its way by, their own past is the best stick to beat them with. In 1994, Oasis’ approach – putting great chunks of rock’s past in a smelter and using noise, hooks and force of will to forge something fresh from it – was a thrill. For all Noel’s occasional trolling in interviews, what Oasis represented an alternative and challenge to wasn’t pop. Instead they rebuked rock as it stood in the early 90s, only sometimes unfairly. British indie, first of all, the wan inbred descendent of punk rock, for its habit of simply aping the past, not trying to match it. Shoegaze and post-rock, for their refusal of the possibilities of a mass audience. Grunge rock, for finding that audience and turning away from it with a shudder. And most of all, the classic rock establishment, packing arenas and scooping BRIT awards by offering the same tired product, year upon year.
That was then. Eight years on, much had changed. Most obviously, Oasis now were the establishment – almost the only remaining British rock group who could guarantee hits and sales. Meanwhile, their artistic fire had conspicuously gone out. The hooks dried up and where they once alchemised the past they now merely and habitually quoted it. And finally, the cultural landscape they were operating in had shifted. The battle with Blur, a media confection the Gallaghers happily dived into, set Oasis’ molten populism against Blur’s art school detachment (one album past both bands’ peak). But Blur and the other Britpop bands turned out to be the last flare-out of the art school lineage as a major commercial force in British pop. An older light entertainment tradition represented by stage school performers (and now reality TV graduates) was now resurgent.
All of this made the likelihood of Oasis producing great records again very low. They had an industry happy to push whatever they did as a return to form, and a fan base ready to accept even their lowest-grade work as plainly and inevitably superior to ‘manufactured pop’. There was no incentive for them to make an effort or change the formula, even if they could have. So they didn’t, and you get “The Hindu Times”, named for no reason other than the lead guitar sounds a bit like a sitar.
This is laziness bordering on contempt, a band trundling along in second gear and telling the world they’re racing. For all that, “The Hindu Times” isn’t a terrible record. It’s marginally the best Oasis number one since 1997, and does indeed clear the mighty bar of being better than “Anything Is Possible”. But next to any of the early fiery stuff, it’s another aimless slog.
The problems aren’t hard to diagnose. After “Go Let It Out”, this is another track proving Liam Gallagher’s voice has turned from the band’s fuel into their biggest liability – he sounds bored out of his skull, and the cramped melody of “The Hindu Times” and its flaccid brain/vein/rain rhymes only make that clearer. But the reason for those lyrics is the same reason the guitar is doing a spot of Eastern cosplay – the song is trying to be specifically Beatley, and its obvious model is “Rain”.
“Rain” is a key track for Oasis in general – Liam’s proto-Oasis band was named The Rain, and its aggressively drawn-out vowels are the Rosetta Stone for his entire vocal approach. It’s one of the bits of the high 60s Oasis and their soundalikes drew most inspiration from – psychedelia, but run through a draggy, heavy, earthbound filter that suited 90s sensibilities better than the more whimsical end of psych. The fact that the band so overtly drew on it at this late stage might be a symptom of creative exhaustion but might also be to do with the arrival of Andy Bell from Ride, another musician with a proud reverence for 1966. Compared to Noel’s other attempts to go back to the source, “The Hindu Times” has more in common with “All Around The World” than “Setting Sun”: the song drones, lifted up by its riff then pulled back down by a pedestrian tune and lyric. Wikipedia – rather generously – compares it to the band’s “Rock N Roll Star”, but in that song rock’n;roll is what lets you tear away from drudgery, if only briefly. In “The Hindu Times” it is the drudgery.
So this song is a worn-out songwriter with nothing to prove, getting an indie supergroup to do “Rain” as a pub rock jam, sung by a man who audibly can’t be arsed. It ends up only a little better than that sounds. And taken with the last two number ones it suggests a fearful doldrum for pop as a whole. Both the main currents the charts took after Britpop (lad rock in the LP rankings, stage school pop for singles) feel exhausted, commercially viable but creatively wiped out, two approaches orbiting each other in futile opposition. There has to be another way.