Liam Gallagher and Kele Okereke: Two Paths for the Front Man Turned Solo Artist

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A shared album-release date today isn’t the only thing that brings together Liam Gallagher and Kele Okereke. Both British men first entered into public view as lead singers for their respective rock bands: Gallagher as the front man for Oasis with Definitely Maybe (1994), Okereke at the head of Bloc Party with Silent Alarm (2005). After a long period in the spotlight with an ensemble, they’re each attempting to advance their craft as solo artists: Okereke’s been sporadically releasing solo albums since 2010 while remaining part of his original band, Gallagher only quite recently after the implosion of Oasis and the dissolution of Beady Eye, a successor band including former Oasis members with the exception of Liam’s brother Noel.

Then there’s the matter of more direct confrontation. The Gallagher brothers have long been renowned for their vicious feuds between each other, but with other bands as well. Blur and Radiohead have come in for the most ire, but Bloc Party, despite belonging to a younger generation of rock bands, didn’t escape tongue-lashing from the ornery duo, Liam sneering at the group in 2007 for looking like contestants on a TV quiz show for college students while Noel framed them succinctly as “indie shit.” As with all Oasis-vs.-the-world controversies, there was an element of class hate in the mud-flinging. Neither college nor indie rock (with its college-skewed audience) was ever in the cards for the blue-collar Gallagher lads, for whom all the fame and fortune in the world has failed to sweep the giant chip off their shoulders when it came to any prominent contemporary band with a more elevated class origin. Okereke didn’t take kindly to being bullied by the heads of Oasis, by then a hugely famous band evidently running on creative fumes: He described the band as “the most overrated and pernicious band of all time” and would later, upon the cancellation of an Oasis concert in Paris due to fraternal hostilities, refer to the Gallaghers as “inbred twins.”

One doesn’t have to interpret today’s release of Kele’s Fatherland and Liam’s As You Were as any sort of contest, but it’s still worthwhile to contrast the two. Each offers a potential path for a singer looking to advance his craft while edging away from the sounds and tone that initially defined him, as Okereke, after taking a couple of left turns in his prior solo albums, goes with yet another unexpected angle while Gallagher refines the same approach to melody and themes pioneered decades ago.

You only get one chance to make a first impression, but how you follow it up is always an open question. As the voice of Bloc Party, Kele Okereke made his mark as a bard of vague personal anxieties cresting into general unease. Advancing a long tradition of social commentary by British rock bands of the middle class, the early Bloc Party’s lyrics were wired with observations about consumerism, racism, and homophobia which Okereke delivered in a voice more spoken than sung, its staccato rhythms clashing harmoniously with the spiky fretwork and percussion of his bandmates. Bloc Party’s sound has evolved since then, but Okereke seems determined to experiment further at his own pace. His solo LPs (The Boxer [2010] and Trick [2014]) and EP (The Hunter [2011]) build on the dancier aspects of Bloc Party’s sound, engaging in prolonged flirtations with electronica, house, and dubstep while offering the artist an arena to display the melodic dimensions of his voice.

Yet even longtime fans might be thrown for a loop by Fatherland, an album which, with its arrangements focused on folk guitars laced with soul horns, is unprecedented in both Okereke’s work with Bloc Party and his prior solo work. The reasons for the drastic shift are clear. Okereke has become a father, and the experience of caring for a daughter (whose name, Savannah, doubles as the title of a song) seems to have been translated into words and sounds best characterized as gentle, though never quite relaxed. Romance, and romantic jealousy, recurs in the lyrics: memories of the singer’s partner’s ex-boyfriend just can’t quite disappear. Social commentary is scarce, although culture and geography remains crucial: “Road to Ibadan” draws on a journey to his parents’ native Nigeria and grows the meaning of the album title. Fatherland is at once Okereke’s least personally guarded and least political album — the winning candor of his tone is based on a desire to put aside broader social concerns in favor of familial worries. The pressures of being black, gay, and famous in Britain have hardly abated, but he seems less bothered by them than ever before. If he returns to political discourse in future work, he’ll do so with a renewed sense of precisely what, and for whom, he’s fighting.

Some things are just too tried and true to change. Why spend time inventing other wheels when there’s a perfectly functional wheel in front of you? Oasis has always been defined by its musical conservatism. If what the Beatles built wasn’t broke, there was no need to fix it. When they added new elements to their songwriting, the shifts were marginal, not essential. The electric guitars on Definitely Maybe are of a volume and scale without real precedent in the Beatles’ albums, and there’s a psychedelic turn on the spottier later albums, but it’s clear that the Gallaghers viewed rock as a heritage to be primarily preserved and only cautiously developed. It’s easy to dismiss such a backward-oriented attitude — it’s certainly something Okereke did when he described Oasis as “regressive Luddites.” But the Gallaghers, like the Luddites, were working-class types with not a few things worth maintaining (the songs on Definitely Maybe foremost among them); all told, Liam’s stubbornness actually serves him well on his solo debut.

True, there’s less to write home about when you’re already home: anyone expecting a new approach to rock music will be disappointed. It’s the same approach, sometimes right down to the level of chords and lyrics. As mentioned earlier, “For What It’s Worth” is almost identical to Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger” in key, sound, and theme; another single, “Chinatown,” reminds the listener that “Happiness is still a warm gun.” The songs are well put together, durable, and powerful. But there’s nothing essentially new about them, which leaves them at a disadvantage compared to, say, Definitely Maybe. The risk of repeating the good old days, in music especially, is that listeners can just replay the classics themselves instead of sitting through dutiful revivals of the classics. To subscribe to the belief that it’s never as good as the first time is to forfeit any possibility of development: for all his working-class roots, Liam’s approach much resembles the attitude of a trust-fund scion who neither wants nor needs to grow his fortune (the fortune in this case being the legacy of the Beatles), and so is resigned to watch that fortune fitfully diminish. Still, being vast to begin with, that fortune won’t be exhausted any time soon. As You Were is neither bad nor novel, and that’s exactly what its artist’s fans have come to expect; likewise Fatherland, though certainly a departure, continues its artist’s habit of diving, for better or worse, into unprecedented waters. Mid-career is unsettling ground for any musician, especially one separated from his original collaborators. But these two, in diametrically opposed yet equally viable ways, seem to be holding up fine.

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