The annual broadcast of the World’s Strongest Man competition is, for some, as much a part of the British festive TV calendar as the Queen’s speech and Home Alone. An international fleet of physically imposing, Lycra-clad muscle men compete in disciplines such as lifting boulders and pulling articulated lorries by a rope – usually set against the backdrop of a beautiful Caribbean location – in a bid to be crowned World’s Strongest Man. Gaz Coombes’ third solo LP is a shake-up of that very notion – his reflection on what it means to be a strong man in 2018. Hint: it’s not how many heavy logs you can chuck over your head.
This is not the first time the former Supergrass frontman’s work has focused on masculinity – his own and other men’s – from different angles, including on 2015’s Mercury Prize-nominated ‘Matador’. But this time his scrutiny of the subject has intensified. A key inspiration was reading Grayson Perry’s assessment of contemporary manhood The Descent Of Man. The book resonated on a personal level, making him contemplate his conduct as a man in the context of being a partner, a father to two daughters, a son, and a songwriter, but also as a male who feels compelled more generally to be an active participant in deconstructing and rebuilding masculinity in order to create a better, fairer, more equal society.
His way of doing this is to embrace the facets he thinks constitute a strong man. Which is to say, this is an album that presents vulnerability, the admission of flaws and emotional openness as routes to strength. There might be pokes at the negative repercussions of prevalent toxic masculinity (‘Wounded Egos’), but it’s mostly about his mind.
“I’m a little mashed up,” he sings on the opening line on the album’s title track, sounding torn: “I want to be by myself / Don’t leave me by myself.” That theme – that there’s benefit in sharing mental fragility – boomerangs around the LP, most directly on ‘The Oaks’, where he strolls to the woods near his countryside home to talk to the trees (“Came upon the oaks / told them about the episode”) and the ‘Vanishing Act’ where his voice cracks as he yells: “I’ve got to get my fucking head straight / I’ve got to put on my happy face”.
Coombes’ vocal, of course, gives the whole thing a nostalgic familiarity, but musically it’s an album that, for him, explores some fresh ground. Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ and ‘Channel Orange’ were both influences, not just in their production but in their approach – their pride, in not just prioritising a big pop chorus, but in the smaller sonic details. Therefore, a lot of ‘World’s Strongest Man’ is about feel, a repetitive groove or a slow build (‘Slow Motion Life’). There’s the deft influence of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on ‘Deep Pockets’, Daft Punk on ‘Shit (I’ve Done It Again)’, Beck on ‘Walk The Walk’ and, a likeness to fellow Oxfordites Radiohead on ‘World’s Strongest Man’ and ‘In Waves’.
If all this sounds like a long way from the goofy 18-year-old with the huge sideburns that wrote ‘Caught By The Fuzz’ – it is. So it should be: almost 25 years have gone by. Coombes, unlike some of his ‘90s peers, has shown an ability and, more importantly, a desire to challenge himself and move forward.
So here’s an album by a male songwriter who feels deeply affected by the conversations happening around men and masculinity right now in light of #MeToo, Time’s Up and gender inequality in all its forms. Gaz Coombes isn’t congratulating himself on having these thoughts, he’s just trying to be more like the man he wants himself and other men to be. There’s room for a lot more of those.