Supergrass are but a distant memory, the adrenalin teenage rush of ‘Caught by the Fuzz’ a brilliant footnote in the history of Brit pop.
However, Coombes is a musical survivor. We knew what a talent he was when he burst on the scene. His natural pop songwriting ability was there from a very early age (he wrote ‘Caught By The Fuzz’ as a young teenager), and since the demise of Supergrass, Coombes has been steadily building up a solo career. Stuttering at first with Here Come the Bombs in 2012, 2015’s Matador was a huge leap forward in terms of finding his feet; the songcraft elegant, epic and melody-rich, as well as being more experimental and darker than ever before, Coombes doing most of the work himself in his home studio. It was also a relative commercial success. Now this, his third solo album, and another baby-step into experimental waters, whilst that keen ear for a melody, which has stood Coombes in good stead for most of his recording career, remains at the heart of his music, a mix of heart-felt balladry and foot-tapping rhythmic propulsions.
This is an eclectic album. One that begins with the title track, in raw blues-rock guitar and drums, entering White Stripes territory, before morphing into an expansive song with synth strings, pulsing electronics, and choral backing vocals. Once again, Coombes delves into the world of motorik funk for the trio of tracks ‘Deep Pockets’, ‘Walk the Walk’ and ‘Wounded Egos’, all invitations to tap those feet, and nod those heads. Conversely, tracks such as the Plastic Ono Band vibe of ‘Slow Motion Life’ are deep and slow, and the wonderfully entitled ‘Shit (I’ve Done It Again)’ evokes the raw electronica of Air, while ‘Oxygen Mask’ sees Coombes pick up an acoustic.
Thematically, World’s Strongest Man is a deeper extension of Matador, a continuing examination of ideas of masculine power, pride and ego, Coombes laying bare his own frailties, in mind and body. Inspired by Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man, and allied with thoughts about men’s constant battles in overcoming fear, and issues of confidence, whilst seeking some sort of meaning within our vast universes. “At first I liked it in the sense of what if I was the world’s strongest man at being a bit weird and a bit rubbish at things?” says Coombes about The Descent of Man. “Being the greatest at being not complete, it’s hard to explain but then I thought it was great, the irony of these ridiculous alpha males, who dominate and cause chaos for everyone.”
On the Can-inspired funk of ‘Walk the Walk’ Coombes imagines a dictator pondering whether or not to go to war, while ‘Wounded Egos’ sees Coombes partially replicate Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, via his use of school children singing the refrain: “Wounded egos / Right-wing psychos”. The particularly personal ‘Weird Dreams’ talks about his propensity for anxiety attacks, while the propulsive raw rocker ‘Vanishing Act’ sees Coombes shout out: “I’ve got to get my fucking head straight”. Meanwhile, ‘The Oaks’ sees Coombes literally talking to oak trees: “Came upon the oaks / told them about the episode”.
You see, it’s all in the mind. He knows that, we know that. Coombes is increasingly embracing the notion that it’s good to talk. In the light of several high profile musical male suicides, there should be no other way.
Despite the surface teenage hi-jinks of ‘Caught By The Fuzz’ and the accompanying video which brilliantly portrayed an impossibly youthful band having fun, Coombes has always displayed a tremendous maturity in his songwriting. He may now be in his early 40s, and pondering what it is to be a man, and a human, but like all great artists, he’s continuing to articulate very well – musically and lyrically – the thoughts of himself, and his generation.