(Caroline, out Fri 4 May 2018)
There’s usually a hangover when a singer goes solo after the split of a successful band – a pounding head from critics banging on with negative comparisons, the bitter taste of fans losing interest, the stale, lingering aroma of your old band’s sound [the churning stomach of an over-stretched metaphor -ed.]. Gaz Coombes definitely suffered one on his moderately-received 2012 debut, Here Comes The Bombs. He began to shake it off on 2015’s Matador, which bagged him a Mercury nomination. This third album should see him finally clear of the long night-before-the-morning-after that was Supergrass.
For a start, not only is there none of the pop-hookage of ’90s ‘grass, there’s little left of the rock grooves of their final incarnation either. World’s Strongest Man is an album of subtle melodies and textures. It’s not trying to win you over. It’s casually asking to be observed and acknowledged, not waving its arms in your face.
For long stretches it has more in common with Coombes’ Oxford contemporary Thom Yorke’s solo output than it does with the Britpop Monkees. Echoing the Radiohead man’s more industrial moments, the title track clanks into action like rusty pipework in a disused warehouse. Walk The Walk‘s falsetto could actually be Yorke, as could it’s lazy, half-funk rhythm. He employs similar vocals on In Waves, whose swampy guitars feel more familiar territory. Deep Pockets sees him go Krautrock (a move pulled by another fellow Britpop grandee, Graham Coxon on his A&E album) and is the album’s most insistent moment.
Coombes has spoken about how the title and themes are a wry comment on alpha masculinity, a modish move which doesn’t really teach us a lot about the man. With Coombes the Clothes Horse’s history of sideburn-preening and penchant for hats, he’s unlikely to be the sort of guy found comparing cock sizes with the other meathead jocks. In other news, Billy Bragg hates Tories.
It does, however, inform the album’s magnificent centerpiece Wounded Egos, a gently transcendent moment, gilded with a kid’s choir. “There’s a feeling I’m fighting, and it’s killing inside,” he sings. The mid-album mellowness continues with Oxygen Mask, a wispy, melancholic musical drive into a West Coast sunset. The Oaks has a brooding, twilight rumble to it too. Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love taken down a few notches.
Mellowness is out the window for the agitated Vanishing Act which is the most explicit example of Coombes’ other theme for the album – his mental health. “I’m gonna get my fuckin’ head straight / I’m gonna put on my happy face,” he hollers. Then we’re lulled out of the album with Weird Dreams, paced like Prince in seduction mode, but with the lust extracted and a mystical, cooing backing vocal added which could be Coombes multi-tracked.
There should be no doubt now that a Coombes solo career is legit. His former trio seemed so well-knit, a viable separate existence wasn’t a given. And at only 42, he’s still remarkably young for a man with the best part of three decades of music under his belt. It’s not inconceivable that the longest, and perhaps most interesting, part of his career is yet ahead.