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Liam Gallagher - MTV Unplugged Music Album Reviews

After infamously bailing out right before Oasis’ 1996 MTV Unplugged performance, the irascible, charismatic Britpop anti-hero gets a second chance.

From the beginning, Oasis’ foundation showed visible cracks. Beyond the excesses of drugs and drinking, there was the Gallagher brothers’ fundamentally unstable relationship. But their most seismic fracture came in 1996, when the band was tapped to record an MTV Unplugged session. At the time, earning a place on the show signified real cultural cachet, following a string of multi-platinum Unplugged albums by Eric Clapton, Mariah Carey, and Nirvana. Yet lead singer Liam Gallagher infamously abandoned the group right before they took the stage to begin taping, leaving his older brother, guitarist Noel, to handle vocals. Liam hung in the balcony, swilling beer and heckling his brother. It proved to the world (and perhaps to Noel himself) that Oasis’ primary songwriter—and the technically superior singer, though lacking Liam’s self-destructive panache—was perfectly capable of handling double duty.
Nearly 25 years later, Liam Gallagher gets his second chance, which begs the question, why is the semi-mothballed MTV Unplugged trotting out the Gallagher who spurned them instead of the one who used the gig to prove his own worthiness as a frontman in his own right?

Liam knows that he can never correct for going AWOL in 1996. He even alludes to his walk-off while introducing “Once,” which he dedicates to former Oasis guitarist Bonehead—who joins Gallagher for the performance—for being the only member of the band to play a second Unplugged session. But MTV Unplugged is, at the very least, an indication that the irascible, charismatic frontman can still hold a crowd in the palm of his hand for long stretches. One of those is a remarkable three-song run of Oasis tunes, beginning with Be Here Now’s “Stand by Me” and ending with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’s “Cast No Shadow.” Sandwiched in the middle is an ultra-rare performance of Definitely Maybe non-album track “Sad Song” that is alone worth the price of admission.

Of course, that stretch, like the entire tracklist, is the result of a bit of sequencing trickery. As televised, the MTV Unplugged concert, recorded in August 2019 and aired the following month, was much more heavily tilted toward Liam’s own songs, including a chunk of five solo cuts that opened the concert. The album, though, is whittled down to just 10 tracks—five by Oasis and five by Liam—and cagily scatters the Oasis songs throughout, the better to stoke the listener’s nostalgia (and ensuring that Oasis fans who aren’t Liam lifers never have to hear more than two unfamiliar songs in a row).

The Liam-written songs are largely a drag, just as they are on his studio albums, save for “Now That I’ve Found You,” a tiny post-Oasis diamond hiding among the weeds, presented in an even better version here as a melancholic acoustic guitar and piano ballad. After a pint or two of Guinness, you might even be able to convince yourself that his brother composed it. But a few of Liam’s clunkers are elevated in the live format, helped greatly by the Hull crowd, recorded high in the mix (and rapturously chanting, “Liam! Liam! Liam!” between songs like it’s 1996 again). Gallagher, who notably struggled to find his place in the music world after Oasis cratered and his ensuing band, Beady Eye, petered out, may have found the recipe for his ongoing success outside the studio.

Take the opener, “Wall of Glass,” which appears on his 2017 solo debut, As You Were. There, it’s a simulacrum of the Screamadelica wall of sound: blaring harmonica, crunchy guitars, heavy handclaps, and thudding bass. Live, though, the harmonica is swapped out for a tasteful organ, the trio of female backing vocalists shines, and Gallagher’s damaged but affecting voice, now cracked and weathered after decades of cigarettes and alcohol, can’t hide.

Stripped of artifice, Gallagher’s words—dripping in cliche, to be sure—ring truer here. The Brothers Gallagher have long been known to speak cryptically to each other through song. (According to 2019’s largely hagiographical Liam Gallagher documentary, As It Was, they don’t speak in real life at all, but a report from February hints at a reconciliation). So while “Wall of Glass,” with its talk of throwing stones, is often read as an attack on Noel, Liam’s recent steps toward self-reflection give the song new meaning: The wall might just be a mirror. In the years since he first recorded the single, Liam has, in his own way, sanded down his rougher edges, appearing almost remorseful about his estranged relationship with his brother in As It Was and apologizing to his family a few months before the taping.

As charming as Gallagher’s nasally Mancunian snarl can be on MTV Unplugged, it’s borderline cartoonish on “Once”—he rhymes “pyuwel” (“pool”) with “skyuwel” (“school”)—though perhaps for Liam diehards this is a feature and not a bug. But the Hull crowd lifts him up again (he later called them “biblical”) and before long, “Champagne Supernova” is on the horizon.

Here’s where Noel’s absence is felt for the first time, like a phantom limb. On (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? the mega-hit clocks in at seven and a half minutes, and it would occasionally stretch considerably beyond that in concert, thanks to the psychedelic shredding of its songwriter, Noel. It’s not quite clear how that kind of grandeur is supposed to translate to an unplugged set, with or without Noel, which is why its inclusion is strange to begin with; even more so its abrupt ending at less than three and a half minutes in. Around the two-minute mark, as Liam reaches the cathartic “Why? Why? Why? Why?” bridge, the strings swell and the crowd is on the edge of ecstasy—but without the sublime noise to shape the song’s dramatic arc, it turns out to be a bridge to nowhere. “Champagne Supernova,” the stunted closer of MTV Unplugged, is a metaphor for Liam Gallagher’s output in a post-Oasis world. It’s an amuse-bouche in lieu of an entrée.

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