Friday, 8 October 2010

"CHAMPAGNE SUPERNOVA" AND THE DROWNED WORLD


Liquid permeates the early music of Oasis to an extraordinary degree. There are dish-filled sinks, songs about the sea, countless alcoholic drinks, bubbling flanger FX, whirpool iconography, and underwater vocals swimming in reverb. Above all, there is that great wall of oceanic guitar sound borrowed from early-‘90s shoegaze. When this sonic element was phased out (from Be Here Now onwards) the band would be left sounding utterly lumpen and pointless. 

The obsession with an engulfing, swamping fluidity culminates spectacularly in “Champagne Supernova”, the final track on What’s the Story, which is simultaneously the band’s masterpiece and their very last moment of artistic sentience.
 

Emerging from the instrumental jam “The Swamp Song” (a presentiment of the band’s retro blues-bore future) “Champagne Supernova” begins with an ambient recording of waves crashing against a shore. This quickly elides with watery musical motifs: a sustained, tremulous mellotron chord, and some lilting pentatonic guitar runs.

The song’s much-mocked “nonsensical” lyrics (“slowly walking down the hall / faster than a cannonball”) are in fact, on the whole, powerful and haunting. The two central motifs are especially resonant:  

How many special people change
How many lives are living strange 
Where were you while we were getting high?  
...
Someday you will find me caught beneath a landslide
In a champagne supernova in the sky. 

We need not resort to patronizing caveats about grammatical errors or grumbles about elements of cliché: this is an epochal poetry couched in beautiful and evocative surrealism. 

In particular, the imagery of the “we” that is “getting high” gives the song a deep melancholy weight. The locution is accusatory. It suggests that the group or community has been deserted, and that the process of getting high is mostly negative (as in “getting wrecked”, “getting shafted”, or “getting annihilated”). The wider connotations of this mixture of hubris, hedonism, and betrayal, coming from a working class British band in the mid-‘90s, shouldn’t need spelling out.

Moreover, the ghostly lyric about a man being engulfed by a champagne landslide is classic latter-day surrealism, of the kind expounded in J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. Ballard’s novel of 1962 describes a future in which most of the northern hemisphere has been flooded as the result of a climatic disaster. London survives only as a few scattered tower blocks peeking above the rising water levels. In one chapter, protagonist Robert Kerans dives below the sea and discovers the ruins of a submerged planetarium left over from the late-twentieth century. His fascination with the building seems to embody all the vast sadness and loss of the Drowned World, a place where history, science, and art have been erased, and the main characters seek to regress into a state of primitive individualism and subconscious self-enclosure. (See also T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, “Death By Water”, which Ballard alludes to in the novel many times.) 

“Champagne Supernova”, with its corresponding image of buried idealism and an individual overwhelmed by a fear of death by water is, like Ballard’s The Drowned World, an elegy for the end of history (though in neither a Marxian nor a Fukuyaman sense). Both works are sublime visions of a world rapidly slipping into waterlogged meaninglessness. Oasis dreamed of the sun and the stars (“I live my life for the stars that shine”, “you could wait for a lifetime / to spend your days in the sunshine”, "we'll find a way of chasing the sun"). But their artistic trajectory ended in any worthwhile sense with a tragic recognition that the aspirational individualism and self-fulfillment which had started out as their subversive raison d’etre could ultimately only lead to the annihilation of their tribe and the loss of their collective soul. Henceforth, their historicist summary of the late-twentieth century - originally humane, inclusive, and life-affirming - would become an introverted pathology, a conservative denial of the possibility of the future. 

“Champagne Supernova” put the submerged planetarium of Ballard’s Drowned World into succinct, epic song form in the mid-1990s. It did so in a way that was unutterably graceful and profoundly sad. It is by far the most salient song of its era, and it has riven my dreams for fifteen years now.

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