Rule The World

Max Gomez

New West Records, 2013

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In case anyone wonders if liner notes still matter, they’re what first sparked my curiosity about Max Gomez. Scanning the small print on Shawn Mullins’ 2015 disc My Stupid Heart led to the discovery that some guy named Max Gomez had co-written two songs for it with Mullins. Three years later, seeing Gomez open for Mullins at a show led me to purchase this album from the man himself, back at the merch table between sets.

The compatability between Gomez and Mullins feels obvious from the first strummed chords of opening title track “Rule The World.” Like Mullins, Gomez’s stock in trade is pointed, insightful singer-songwriter fare with distinct personality and abundant heart. His songs—mostly building from a folky Americana base, but veering into blues and pop and alt-country territory at times—can feel deceptively simple at first; a melody, a verse, a chorus, and yeah, that all works. But his lyrics have a penetrating intelligence and world-weary quality that belies the fact Gomez was 23 when he recorded this album. I hate to pull the “old soul in a young body” cliché out of the reviewer’s toolbox (“No! Put that back!”), but man does it fit here. Gomez sounds like a guy with a lot more experience of the ups and downs of life—and a much greater capacity to capture them with nuance and grace—than his age at the time this album was recorded would have suggested.

Furthering this sense of an artist engaging in skillful sleight of hand is Gomez’s delivery. He redefines the word laconic, singing like he’s half-asleep until a little push here or pull there reinforces that he’s not, he’s completely aware and focused at all times, it’s just that he’s constitutionally incapable of overselling a moment. (This is even truer live, where Gomez gives off a slightly scruffy cousin-of-the-bartender-who-got-drafted-to-open-tonight’s-show-at-the-last-minute vibe, right up until he starts singing, whereupon the entire audience inhales sharply, listens through the first verse, looks at each other and goes my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 “Ooooh shit—this guy’s for real.”)

And leadoff title track “Rule The World” is among his best, a song not about world domination, but about wishing desperately for the power to “take the pain from your heart / I would tear it all up, I’d tear it apart.” Even as he’s subverting expectations again and again, Gomez pays homage to a range of songwriting traditions, whether it’s the undercurrent of blues in his cadence and rhythm on “Ball And Chain”—which also embraces gospel influences in the background vocals—or the sleepy, countrified feel of closing “baby done left me” breakup ballad “Cherry Red Wine.”

Another highlight, the shimmering “True Blue,” opens with a couplet—“I’m writing to say the words locked inside / The ones that never could come out, but now they cannot hide” that basically defines the singer-songwriter genre in two spare lines. Here again Gomez lulls you with a gentle arrangement and easy-going delivery right up until the pre-chorus, where he starts catapulting individual words into falsetto for emphasis and you understand the depth of his talent and craft.

Scattered through the rest of this persistently appealing album are examples of playful Max (the swinging, tongue-in-cheek “Never Say Never” and the stubbornly optimistic “Love Will Find A Way,” both Mullins co-writes), serious Max (the sweet, folky ballad “What It Means”), and wise-beyond-his-years Max (the ironically bouncy warning “Run From You”). The closest things to missteps are the rare moments where Gomez inches his understated, thoughtful music closer to pop territory. The otherwise solid piano ballad “Black And White” descends into predictability halfway through as the music swells and the chorus starts to repeat and you’re left wondering who thought that was the way to go. It feels calculated rather than organic, like an A&R guy was in the mixing booth telling everyone “punch up the guitars and vocals on the chorus and repeat it a couple more times and we might just get this on the radio…”

Rule The World benefits from the sharp, un-fussy production of Jeff Trott (best known for his work with Sheryl Crow) and the clean, live-sounding mix by the estimable Tchad Blake. Their talents were well-spent on these songs, a strong opening volley from a young artist with a keen eye, a full heart, and buckets of talent. Next up for this reviewer is checking out Gomez’ more recent EP Me & Joe.

Rating: B+

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