The Stone Roses - Second Coming

YEAH, YEAH. I remember

The clothes. The idea of rock concert-as-generational baptism. Records that blared from every adolescent bedroom. The overwhelming realisation that we might have come across a group who'd mean as much to us as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones did to our forbears.

The facets of their character were breathtaking. They were wrapped in outlaw chic, playing games entirely of their own making, quietly laughing at straight society and communicating in code. In terms of encapsulating the rock'n'roll mixture of sneering dissent, the gang mentality, absolute cool and homo-erotic aesthetics, The Stone Roses were among the best ever.

It all dripped from the records, hammering their shortcomings (Ian's voice, chiefly) into absolute dust. When The Stone Roses felt anything, it burned: so, when they were narcissistic, their egos threatened to explode (ergo 'I Wanna Be Adored'. '...Resurrection'); when they were oozing love-drenched euphoria, they flew towards places where angels play ('She Bangs The Drums'), and when they were mainlining off the arrogant spite that ran through the first album, they were all but ready to kill - witness 'Shoot You Down'. Whatever happened, The Stone Roses felt indestructible; and listening to them, so did you. But! If much of their beauty lay in their scorn for the manual that led almost every occupant of the indie township into generic torpor, it was probably inevitable that - after peaking with 'Fool's Gold' and 'What The World Is Waiting For', and just about perpetuating the hysteria with 'One Love' - they'd ignore the chapters about timing and career schedules, and disappear into the hills to take stock. And, in fits and starts, in rural retreats and hired houses, and in more time than it took The Beatles to move from 'Love Me Do' to 'Strawberry Fields Forever', The Stone Roses made a second album.

Sixteen hundred days after they eloped, anything other than a stone-cold classic that sounded like it had been beamed in from another plane was going to be a jarring anti-climax. 'Second Coming' is exactly that: to adopt the consumer guide vernacular, it sags in the middle, it has way too many moments that sound dashed off... it could have been much, much better.

So, it's a failure - and yet, if you can step outside the welter of celestial expectations and the idea that they were somehow going to save us, 'Second Coming' (most of which, incidentally, was written by John Squire) delivers a clutch of transcendent delights: moments that repeat the trick of making you feel mighty, taking you into a world so beguiling that it can momentarily keep the disappointment at bay.

The spell they cast has changed. They're not as evangelical this time; less prone to proclaim their own genius, the rank stench of the outside world, and the slippery essence of their enlightened cool. 'Second Coming' is an introspective, understated beast, drawing on archetypes - the blues, the intimate love song - that lie far from the anthemic, arrogant pretensions they once carried in their pockets.

At its best, it occupies a darkened world of the kind in which they stages 'Fools Gold' and the long-forgotten 'Something's Burning' - only this time, Robert Johnson and Jimmy Page (replete with black magic fixation) occasionally come out to watch from the margins.

We're thrust into it at the outset: 'Breaking Into Heaven', despite the idyllic promise of the title, begins with four-and-a-half minutes of brooding atmospherics (bird calls, tropical rain), as if The Roses have relocated to the Vietnamese jungle in 1968. Soon enough, doom-laden guitar - drenched in wah-wah, just to surprise us - flies around, and Ian Brown begins to sing in a hushed, threatening rasp.

Your number's up, he tells some blighted unfortunate. He's coming round. Then - against a meandering, smoky backdrop - comes the rub: "Listen here, sweet child of mine, have I got news for you/Nobody leaves this place alive/They'll die here, join the queue...". The plot remains unclear, but there's menace afoot: if he does wrench open heaven's gates, he's hell-bent on sowing disorder. Thus, a song that constantly threatens to be a sprawling tangle succeeds, for the whole of its 11 (yes, E-L-E-V-E-N) minute duration, in being absolutely compulsive. One down).

'Driving South' is even better. For sure, it's a worryingly close sibling of 'Love Spreads': a rolling 12-bar monster, led by a swampy guitar figure and full of moments when John Squire pulls the song away from the others and scrawls his new signature all over it. Its transparent kinship matters little: once Ian has started weaving a heart-stopping yarn involving hurricanes, soul-stealing and what might be The Roses' first recorded instance of self-deprecation ("You ain't too young and pretty/And you sure as hell can't sing"), your intrigued, soon silenced, and ever so slightly scared.

Nothing, however, is as frightening as 'Begging You'. Placed in the midst of a run of frustrating underachievement (more of which later), it's an apocalyptic stampede, all charging drums, guitars that sound like giant hornets, and sequenced loops that give it the air of a futuristic hallucination. The words - buried, as with much of the record, under the layered mists of guitar - are an irrelevance: they merely conspire with everything else to produce a sense of pounding urgency. It sounds something like the Stereo MC's, suddenly forced into the role of satanic overlords. That good.

In contrast to all that, there are two moments when they dip into the blue-eyed, shimmering music that was their making. 'How Do You Sleep' is soaked in a familiar surreal hatred ("I've seen your severed head at a banquet for the dead/All dressed up for dinner, looks so fine", guitar that's (knowingly?) redolent of 'What The World...', and an over-riding air of grace and intelligence and unstoppable self-confidence. And 'Ten Storey Love Song' has been sculpted from the same stuff as 'Sugar Spun Sister': it's other-wordly, full of sun-kissed bliss. It teeters into schmaltz, but that's part of its allure: here, against all odds, The Stone Roses cast themselves as wide-eyed innocents and play the part to perfection.

Within seconds of that knock-out blow, 'Second Coming' stumbles into the fog, loses its compass, and ends up floundering. 'Daybreak', a skeletal hobble through the kind of half-idea that usually ricochets around provincial halls at soundcheck time, is among the most forgettable songs The Roses have created. 'Straight To The Man' - the one song crafted by Ian Brown alone - isn't much better.

And 'Good Times', though it merits faint praise (there's a song here, of sorts), is too full of similar failings: lame dependence on the same inflections, threadbare sound, the sense that no-one knows how to railroad the murky, tuneless soup towards the elevated platform on which The Stone Roses once stood.

The same aura surrounds two austere acoustic pieces. 'Your Star Will Shine', already thrown on to the B-side of 'Love Spreads', sets out to capture some kind of mood-changing, almost Eastern mysticism - but it's such a dirge that it remains earthbound. 'Tightrope', wherein Ian, Reni and John attempt howling three-part vocals, wants to recapture the spirit of 'Beggars Banquet', but merely sounds like callow also-rans trying to impress us with tricks they can't execute. Like too much of 'Second Coming', both could well be work in progress, aborted by people who were suddenly disturbed by unwanted house-guests and ran north, knowing full well they were about to give their disciples short weight.

Thankfully, 'Second Coming' eventually rallies. 'Tears' lies somewhere between epic blues and airbrushed, tune-soaked pop music, soaring to heights that dwarf its half-cocked predecessors. The aforementioned 'How Do You Sleep' is a marvel. And the epilogue crashes in with a headspinning familiarity...

'Love Spreads' plunges us back into The Roses' darkened netherworld, equal parts southern swampland and rain-lashed English hell-hole. The snaking guitars, the conspiratorial undertones and the ambience that verges on being hellish have returned: we don't know what's happening, but it's got a sinister, cinematic magnetism. "She didn't scream, she didn't make a sound/I'll forgive you boy - but don't leave town..."

Then... silence. There's a 'concealed' track that sounds like grammar school boys trying to turn a music lesson into a Monty Python sketch (farmyard noises, honky-tonk piano, absolute ludicrousness), an abiding feeling of frustration, and a very peculiar aftermath. The dope smoke's still lingering in rural Wales, the record company chief is in the throes of occupational stress, America's portals are locked shut - and what exactly happens next is a 24-carat mystery.

The notion of boy-gods quietly making an opus that'd redefine the zeitgeist, make their peers gasp for breath and leave the rest of us reeling hasn't been realised.

Their brilliance shines through, but The Stone Roses sound as mortal as anyone else. The chronicles will have to be amended: far from satisfying our more insane aspirations, they've become a Good Rock Band, shot through with a host of glaring faults.

Confine those sky-scraping memories to the part of your mind reserved for stories you'll tell your grandchildren. Be prepared to flick through the five-song trough, repeatedly throw yourself into the moments that propel this record towards the sun, and wonder why they couldn't make the magic last longer. And ask yourself this: Are you ready to be heartbroken?


John Harris