There’s nothing quite like an odd childhood to inspire creative sorts. Coward was raised in a strict Christian religious group, and on the evidence of this release he may still has a few demons to cast out. Follow up to 2014’s ironically “The World Famous Joseph Coward”, “Win Big Prizes” is a decidedly dark affair; obsession, lust, heartbreak, loss and sin are all recurring themes that dominate the album.
Opener “Necrosis”, all moody guitars and bass battling downbeat piano, sets the tone. Hints towards something hopeful (“You could be a star/ if you only tried/ give it a go”) are quickly dashed (“oh well”) before the strings lead us beautifully back into the familiar darkness. “Tales of the Dead” takes us into confessional territory, with Coward lamenting his mother (“just a woman who told me tales of the dead/ scary stories before I went to bed”), but forgives her despite all of this. Starting breezily, shuffling rhythms and bright pianos are paired with images of dope-smoking angels and his own body burning hell, before giving in to a growing malevolence (“those fuckers in their high chairs”). Imagine The Magnetic Fields having an angry breakdown and you’re getting close – an album highlight, for sure.
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Lyrically, Coward’s talent is undeniable. Not one to write clichés about dancing at discos, he holds himself to a higher standard than that, conjuring biblical images from his pen whilst picking away at his own character. Noting his own contrary nature on “Coming Down”, he sings “I’m impatiently patient/ but not for long” before offering later “would you be a mucky puppy with me?”- lines which could be taken straight from Stephen Merritt’s lyric book. That’s no bad thing. “(I Found Something New) Under The Sun” is reflective, like a gentle Morrissey fronting an early-era Belle and Sebastian, while “Peanut Girl” is self-deprecating and almost playful. Almost. “Donkey Boy” has a David Lynch feel to it, equally threatening and eerie with its guitar stabs and whirling synths as Coward croons “my heart has slammed on its brakes”.
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Elsewhere, “Not At All” channels Nick Cave, leading with doom-laden piano and bass tones, before chiming guitars break into a soaring cacophony of noise. Appropriately enough, Thurston Moore makes an appearance on “Weight” to add gritty crunching guitars to the mix while Coward talks “stronger medication” and yearns for angels to come (that religious iconography again). The collaboration works brilliantly, even if the medication doesn’t. Sitting comfortably between these two tracks, “I Know That Face All Too Well” sees Coward showing off his sharp-tongued observations again brilliantly (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E/ that’s how you spell ‘happy’). Closing with “Ode To”, Coward’s full-voiced and in a somewhat defiant mood on what might be the weakest track on the album. Ultimately though, it’s the strength of Joseph Coward’s songwriting that wins through, and hopefully wherein he’ll find redemption. One to watch, certainly.