Never say ‘never again’. Thankfully, Mike Oldfield took this time-honoured advice when, by his own admission, he considered knocking this music-making lark on the head after his last studio album, 2008's well-received classical set, Music Of The Spheres.
He claims to have been re-energised by his involvement in the London 2012 opening ceremony, and even judging by the engaging diversion that was Spheres, change has proved more beneficial than a rest for a man now releasing his 25th studio album. But few fans will have quite anticipated Man On The Rocks, his most unashamedly commercial, accessible collection of songs since 1991’s Heaven’s Open. That record was, coincidentally, his last album for Virgin, concluding a deal that went so sour that as the album faded out, you could hear Oldfield shouting, “Fuck off.”
Back then, the label put pressure on him to come up with hits. Now, newly re-signed to Virgin as part of EMI, it looks like he’s only too happy to oblige without their prompting. Opening track Sailing sets the tone, an upbeat, sometimes euphoric statement of intent that vows to ‘Cast the lines away, it’s a fine bright day, and the wind is blowing our way,’ as if our hero has freed himself of the shackles of expectation as a songwriter and is determined to just go with the flow. Its echoey production evokes memories of his poppiest moments – think Moonlight Shadow and you’re roughly in the same ballpark.
Fans of Oldfield’s more adventurous output might consider this album the creative antithesis of his 1970s pomp, but the simple approach seems to have reinvigorated his songwriting. Because even if Sailing’s broad strokes and singalong chorus might cloy on the palates of some, there’s no doubt that it’s a hit waiting to happen. Moonshine follows in a similarly windswept, anthemic vein, this time decorated with similar tinges of Celtic instrumentation to those that have punctuated several chunks of the Oldfield back catalogue. There are even a few licks of the bagpipe-esque guitar that used to be another trademark touch.
It’s at this point we should introduce the man who is, curiously enough, the first to lend vocals to every song on a Mike Oldfield album (aside from the man himself). That task falls to the young figure of Luke Spiller, until this point best known as the shaggy-haired frontman with Devon glam-rock hopefuls The Struts. It’s a bold choice, but it pays off. The new boy’s melodramatic, slightly theatrical style adds a welcome extra colour to the songs here. On his own band’s material, there is a definite touch of Freddie Mercury’s more strident moments in Spiller’s voice, but on this album he displays an impressive range of personae to complement them. His versatility is well-showcased on the title track, where the contemplative acoustic opening verses build into a sky-scraping crescendo, with Spiller howling as Oldfield’s wall of guitars and a gospel-style choir lift the whole affair into stadium rock territory.
Castaway is another slow-burning ballad-turned-anthem, with some suitably cloud-hopping guitar from the man in charge, and if that formula is starting to get a little repetitive, the plot thickens later on. Chariots has more fire in its belly, built around a chugging guitar riff, as Spiller sings, _‘Put an end to this tyranny ’cos we are fighting to be free’. _What tyranny would that be? Pressures of fame? Taxation? (Unlikely, now Oldfield lives in the Bahamas.) The smoking ban, which Oldfield was heard grumbling about a few years back? Who knows.
But if the sentiments are on the vague side, the music keeps hitting the spot, even at the other end of the sonic spectrum, as Following The Angels’ almost lullaby-like piano reverie charms us with a complete change of pace. Such is its instant accessibility and MOR stylings, you’re bound to question whether this album even belongs in a magazine dedicated to progressive music.
In a generic sense, it’s not a prog album. But in the sense of moving on creatively and choosing not to repeat yourself as an artist, maybe making a defiantly commercial, Radio 2-friendly collection of tuneful rock songs like this is the most radical move Mike Oldfield could have made. And ultimately, what really counts is that he’s done it as well as he’s done anything in the past 30 years.