Matador, former Supergrass frontman, Gaz Coombes proved himself as a solo artist. Experimenting with a more textured, layered sound it was one of the most cohesive and rewarding albums he has put his name to. On World’s Strongest Man, Coombes mixes things up even further with trippy, cinematic piano ballads (Slow Motion Love), hazy, Bowie influenced mid-tempo numbers (Oxygen Mask) and even throws in a Children’s choir (Wounded Egos).
Lyrically, the album deals with such disparate themes as the rise of extremism, getting stoned, mental health and the modern idea of masculinity, a subject inspired by Grayson Perry’s book,
The Descent of Man. In it, Perry attempts to deconstruct how society dictates male gender roles and explores the adverse effect this has on them, their relationships and society in general. Each topic is covered intelligently while Coombes imbues the lyrics with levity and empathy that are easy to identify with.
World’s Strongest Man is Coombes most diverse album to date with each song finding him experimenting with fresh sounds and rhythms and constantly pushing at the edges of the sound meaning so that each song is bursting with fresh ideas. Here, Coombes provides PopMatters with a little insight into many of the songs on the album.
Opening with a crisp, languid guitar riff, the title song finds Coombes laying bare his own deficiencies, explaining that the song, “is about being isolated in situations, focusing on all the inadequacies and just being a bit of a loser or not getting out of bed”.
The grooving, electro-funk strut of “Deep Pockets” wows with its stomping beat and wails of guitar. “Walk the Walk” continues in the same bold, confident vein with a bone-dry, swaggering riff that even Coombes was stunned by. “The opening two bars of “Walk the Walk”, yeah that’s the shit. That’s the kind of thing that when you listen back even as the person who wrote it and kinda go ‘Fuck!'”
The song concerns the “Default Man” as Grayson Perry refers to them. Those straight, white, middle-class males that hold power in society. Rather unexpectedly, it also includes an audacious fiddle solo, something Coombes was keen to try out. “I think I’d been listening to quite a lot of Beefheart and I like the sort of rock and roll fiddle, but the way Beefheart or Zappa recorded it, you couldn’t tell if it was a guitar or a violin, so it didn’t have that folkiness of a violin solo. It was kind of like a violin player trying to do a Frank Zappa solo or something. I thought that would really work for that track, that hybrid violin, guitar sound almost.”
The domestic drama of “Shit (I’ve Done It Again)”, highlights the stunning production of Coombes and co-producer Ian Davenport as they create a rich sonic landscape with cut-up harmonies, layered fuzz guitars, and gliding strings. Coombes’ vocals are distorted and warped to sound like a vocal track from an early Air record.
The emotionally wrought piano ballad “Slow Motion Life” contains one of Coombes most affecting vocal performances to date. Coombes contrasts the lush backing with a more personal, bruised lyrical approach as he explains.
“It’s a very visual idea for me. The cinematic idea of putting classical music against a very violent scene. That sort of juxtaposition of emotion and I had these images in my head of how everything is sort of slowed down if you’re looking at things from an aerial point of view and how nothing seems that real. It all feels slowed down. Like if you’re coming into land in London or something and things don’t look like they’re moving. I think that’s where the greatest height thing comes in and also that idea that with the greatest height comes great clarity. When you have a moment of clarity, and everything slows down, and you can completely immerse yourself in that one moment. Because you are given the time to feel it. It’s quite a visceral thing really.”
The disruptive, chaotic outro rips a hole through the heart of the song as Coombes throws his metaphorical, musical crockery in the air and tramples over the pieces. “I think that end section came about a bit later on and it wasn’t actually on the track, and I was away having a break and I was listening to a piano version and I was wandering around outside just playing it on my phone and I suddenly heard this whole outro around me in nature. Like the wind coming out of the trees sounding like white noise and then these birds started making a discordant sound. It sounds really bizarre but I suddenly heard the whole outro and how it crescendoed into this chaos a bit like “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. So I got home and I just recorded exactly what I got in my head. It just worked straight away and I thought. That was a big moment in a way. When I play that back it definitely kind of hits me.”
The mid-tempo “Wounded Egos” finds Coombes mixing stomping drums, wide screen synths and a children’s choir to create a lush, part-gospel, part electro R&B backing. Lyrically, it confronts the growing threat of fascism. (“Wounded egos / Right-wing psychos”). The Radiohead meets Queens of the Stone Age, freak out of “In Waves”, finds Coombes plugging in and rocking out, but not in the way you might expect.
“There were guitar riffs that I would loop and play around with and record. “In Waves” was just a four bar loop of this riff and that was the song. So it has this root or traditional of a power riff and then it’s turned on its head a bit and twisted and manipulated and that feels in tune with the way that i write on my own and not making it feel like a band.”
“Oaks” serves as the emotional centrepiece of the album. It’s a tautly, rhythmic piece with Coombes once again showing his chops as a drummer, also blending in hazy, otherworldly synths and textured strings. While it may be one of the most rewarding tracks on the album, it didn’t come together quite so easily.
“I’ll tell you what the little troublemaker was, “The Oaks”. I can’t remember why now, I think it was structure. I think I just knew that the verses, the vocal melodies, the piano, the groove of the beat. It’s kind of one of my favourite things but for a long time the rest of the track was kinda substandard. It was so frustrating. You’re just touching this really great idea but it hadn’t sort of formed itself. You couldn’t quite see where it was gonna go. I remember putting that down for a few months and went back to it. I think I just changed instrument or just tried something and wrote that chorus section and it felt good.”
The hard rocking “Vanishing Act” finds Coombes echoing Thom Yorke’s staccato delivery before flipping out, as he articulates his own frustrations at trying to get himself together. (“I’m gonna get my fucking head straight/ I’m gonna put on my happy face”)
“I had a few moments of concern or shied away from being so direct. Cause ultimately it’s a panic attack that song and I thought how do I get that across and I got to the point where I thought ‘fuck it!’ and just say what it is which is what I need to do when I get into a weird state. I just need to sort my fucking head out. I need to get my head straight and I need to shout at myself. So that was just very honest and I didn’t mind about being honest on that one. I think it’s got a bit of humour in that one as well. In my mind it should have a kind of humorous edge to it as well. Just the fact that I’m even willing to scream. There’s something quite funny about it.”
As album closer “Weird Dreams” drifts to its conclusion, it’s clear that World’s Strongest Man is Coombes’ boldest musical statement to date with each song overflowing with hooks and melodies. His urge to challenge himself has paid off on an album that’s recognizably him but sounds like nothing he’s ever done before.