The current issue of British culture magazine the Face features the sardonic headline, "Daddy, who were the Stone Roses?" To a Brit-rock fan, it's a pointed blast at both the Roses (onetime British superstars who haven't been heard from lately) and at a past littered with hyped-up bands who ultimately folded under the weight of history. Oasis, the one group of its class to have become worldwide stars, must be feeling the sting more than any of their peers. The group has always balanced its pose as crotchety old souls with its nose-thumbing, fuck-all attitude to the weight of rock history. But the band members aren't getting any younger, and such confrontational charm can only wear thin.
The matter of age pokes at Oasis' fourth studio album, "Standing on the Shoulder of Giants," like a needling young punk ready to write off the band as gray and gone. It's a strange matter to raise about a band that released its first album in 1994, but pop music moves fast, especially at the grand level Oasis tries to operate on. Given their self-aggrandizing histrionics, brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher would look silly the day they fail to be at least a candidate for biggest band in the world. Even if it could be argued that such a day came and went after the underwhelming "Be Here Now" (1997), the same result applies even more so when Oasis starts to sound like the parents of kids who don't know the Stone Roses from the Big Bopper.
To Oasis' core audience of unwittingly aging wanderers, one of few prospects more terrifying than child rearing is the idea of Liam Gallagher as parent. There's something to be said for the joys of irresponsibility; indeed, Liam built a career saying it before he got married, had a baby and started to mellow out. But nobody wants their rock stars, particularly their bombastic larger-than-life rock stars, to be straight and sober. So reconciling the idea of a daddy Liam (not to mention the chilling effect of imagining a kid brattier than his father) presents itself as a profound struggle. If Liam owes his star status to clowning around in a perennially regressive stupor, what happens when he grows up?
"Standing on the Shoulder of Giants" includes a Liam ode to his boy, "Little James." It's not exactly a terrible song, but it does represent the band's slow fade into obsolescence. In typical Oasis fashion, Liam files through a series of wobbly couplets before gliding into the chorus, milking his peculiar vocal ability to slide over words like a wilting violin. In atypical Oasis fashion, though, the chorus feels stuffy, choked, disconnected: "I'm singing this song for you and your mom, and that's all/Because it won't be long before everyone is gone." He's trying to evoke his past flirtation with soulful nihilism, but sounds about as dangerous as James Taylor singing "Sweet Baby James."
This unwelcome coming-of-age is draped all over the new record. "You know that feeling you get/You feel you're older than time?" Noel Gallagher sings on "Where Did It All Go Wrong?" On "Sunday Morning Call," Liam sings, "You can dance until the morning light/At what price?"
It's never advisable to read too much into Oasis lyrics, but a similarly unwelcome weight bears down just as heavily on the music. In the past, the band's sound revolved around essentially one thing: plangent, heavy rock that summoned the '60s forebears whose thrones they desired. Brother Noel has spoken of a newfound devotion to stylistic experimentation, but that says more about their strict adherence to formula in the past than any new dramatic advances. There are trip-hop touches on "Gas Panic!" and "big beat" breaks on the instrumental "Fucking in the Bushes," but these references amount to cursory nods to contemporary culture rather than open-armed acceptance of genre-mixing. Much more attention went to better articulating the language of rock's past: the woozily psychedelic backward guitar on "Who Feels Love?"; "Roll It Over's" space-gospel homage to Pink Floyd; and the puzzlingly AC/DC-like crunch of "Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is."
Mostly down-tempo and totally devoid of choruses that might deliver dumb but pleasurable catharsis, the music quite simply fails to breathe. And while there's room to debate the intent of the band's words, the message delivered by the dragging guitars and uninspired melodies comes across clearly. Oasis sounds like a band not so much ravaged by time as knocked off-balance by its sneaky accumulation.