Release Date: Jun 12, 2012
Record label: XL Recordings
Genre(s): R&B, Pop/Rock
Any creative collaboration can be a tricky. The best succeed on openness, trust and, most importantly, an alignment of circumstances that can't be duplicated. Bobby Womack's first album of original material in two decades is a stellar example of that magical confluence, and its success speaks volumes about the character of the man behind it. Co-produced by his Gorillaz collaborator Damon Albarn and XL head Richard Russell, The Bravest Man In The Universe fearlessly fuses the old - grizzled gospel and swampy blues - with new twitchy, thumping electronics to create something that's both inspiringly original and comfortingly familiar.
Sixty-eight-year-old soul survivor Bobby Womack lent his growl on the last two Gorillaz LPs, so this foray into dubby digital funk with Damon Albarn and English record exec Richard Russell doesn't feel at all like a stretch. He's at home testifying over coolly throbbing beats, and on the anti-war title track Womack pleads for brotherly forgiveness over an ominous, jazz-tinged creeping – a classic sentiment updated for the era of drone attacks and wiretaps. Listen to 'The Bravest Man in the Universe': Related• Bobby Womack Reaches Way Back For 'Deep River' .
Bobby WomackThe Bravest Man In The Universe[XL Recordings; 2012]By Weston Fleming; June 14, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetContinue imagining yourself as invincible as you will, such is natural. But before taking on The Bravest Man In The Universe—soul legend Bobby Womack’s first original work in nearly two decades—be prepared to face a man who has long accepted his own mortality. He isn’t afraid to display that acceptance; such is clear with one look at the album cover, featuring Womack’s weathered, wrinkled hand and its impossibly bent thumb.
Damon Albarn enlisted Bobby Womack to sing on Gorillaz's 2010 album Plastic Beach, pushing the great soul singer back into action after a prolonged period of silence. Remarkably, the unlikely pair struck up a friendship, a partnership that led to 2012's The Bravest Man in the Universe, Womack's first album in 13 years. Signing with Richard Russell's XL Records, Womack collaborated with his longtime cohort Harold Payne, Albarn, and Russell on this ghostly, skeletal soul collection, each man bringing his own signatures to the table.
”I once was lost, but now I’m found.” That centuries-old gospel refrain has been co-opted endlessly, but few own it like 68-year-old soul survivor Womack does on his 28th album’s title track. Long plagued by drug addiction and poor health, the R&B legend was all but out of the game when Britpop hero Damon Albarn recruited him for Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach in 2010. Since then, Albarn has made it his mission — as Rick Rubin and Jack White did with Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, respectively — to bring an icon to a new generation.
There’s been a resurgence of soul music in the last couple of years, but while these young cats sing optimistically about heartbreak and social change, Bobby Womack sings from experience, and there’s very little optimism in that voice. On his new album, Womack’s intensely self-deprecating vocals tap into the marrow of a man who’s trying to reconcile the pieces of his life; however, the production’s click-clack effects and arcade synths often distract and inadvertently undercut the sincerity of Womack’s words. The most intimate track on the record is a stripped-down rendition of an old spiritual, “Deep River,” which features Womack’s fingerpicked guitar and towering voice, and it’s this song that strikes to the root of Womack’s trials—he’s a man singing and searching for peace, not club hits.
Artistic rehabilitations have been all the rage for nearly 20 years, ever since Rick Rubin gave Johnny Cash a stack of contemporary songs to cover. These earned the ailing Cash a last hurrah of relevance and prompted a wave of resuscitations, some braver than others. There have, of course, always been comebacks. But the appeal of these latterday phoenix flights has hinged on the advanced years and hard lives of their subjects, and often startling stylistic innovation.
As Bobby Womack recently reminded the Guardian, he has survived everything from poverty to drug addiction to being shot by an infuriated wife. Now almost 70, the soul legend has poured the emotional fallout from such experiences into his first album of new material since 1994. Producers Damon Albarn and XL's Richard Russell have framed Womack's lived-in vocals in stark, urbane, minimalist beats.
The idea of the tortured artist is a cliché. But aren’t clichés mostly true? Bobby Womack is truly a tortured artist, for he is an artist who has been tortured– by circumstance, by things out of his control. When a young Womack quit singing gospel in favor of pop music, Womack’s father, disgraced by his son’s secular conversion, kicked him out of the house.
As honcho at XL Recordings, Richard Russell built an empire on impeccable taste. Then as producer of 2010’s ‘I’m New Here’ he effected a stunning 11th-hour resuscitation of grizzled jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron over new-fangled electronic whirrs. Now, he once again dusts off a heroic grizzler for Bobby Womack’s first original recordings since 1994.
If not a bated breath affair, it could be said that Bobby Womack’s return has been modestly anticipated. In 2010, Damon Albarn’s successful cartoon side-project, Gorillaz, introduced a whole new generation to Womack’s venerated voice. It should also be noted that, one year prior and on a much smaller scale, Michael Fassbender sang the praises of and did a funny dance to vintage Womack in the independent film Fish Tank.
Any fan of soul has to be thankful for Damon Albarn entering the life of Bobby Womack. Not only did Albarn feature Womack on a couple of Gorillaz tunes from Plastic Beach, but he also co-produced the veteran soul man's first album of new material in 18 years. In 37 tidy minutes, Womack both returns to form, on the luscious slow burn "Deep River," and mines new territory, on "Dayglo Reflection," featuring guest vocals by none other than Lana Del Rey.
Where you land on Bobby Womack's first proper album of new songs in 18 years depends partly on where you started out with him, and partly on how far you're willing to go from there. Anyone coming to The Bravest Man in the Universe expecting some sort of neo-soul rehash of Womack's classic '70s sound should just go listen to a John Legend record instead. Even if your Womack of choice is the comparatively sleek '80s incarnation, you're still bound to be a good distance from what happens here.
"As a singer grows older," starts a charming cut of sampled dialog on Bobby Womack's first album of original material in 18 years, "his conception grows a little deeper because he lives life and he understands what he's trying to say a little more." The voice belongs to Womack's mentor and friend, Sam Cooke, who spoke those words of wisdom in 1963, when he was 32 years old. Cooke was murdered a year later when, acting in self-defense, a Los Angeles motel manager sent a bullet through both of his lungs and his heart. A few days after his idol's funeral, Womack began a scandalous relationship with Cooke's widow, and the two married just a few months later.
“I could try to say I’m sorry, but that won’t be quite enough…” is the incredibly appropriate opening line in Please Forgive My Heart. When you have nine lives, as Bobby Womack has clearly been granted, apologies are inevitable. Attempting to rationalize or predict where Womack places his specific tragedies and triumphs into his music is almost impossible.
Donning not only a hugely personal but also prolific street credibility is just one of the many assets provided by 60’s and 70’s Soul idol, Bobby Womack. From hits like, “Across 110th Street” seen in Tarantino movies to “Lookin for a Love” which is held up as one of the best Funk/Soul hits of the 1970’s, Womack finds himself amongst the quintessential R&B voices of our time. There is a seasoned beauty to his seemingly untouched vibrato.
Eighteen years after his last new material, the soul legend is back. Wyndham Wallace 2012 They’re calling it a masterpiece. That’s the way when these beloved legends come in from the cold: so welcome is their return that weaknesses are overlooked out of gratitude for what they’ve already given us. Since Bobby Womack’s career has been more colourful than most, one is even more inclined to forgive his shortcomings: a former protégé of Sam Cooke (who went on controversially to marry Cooke’s wife), he worked as a guitarist for Ray Charles and Sly and the Family Stone as well as a writer for Wilson Pickett and Janis Joplin, and is most celebrated as an incomparable singer whose success was sadly diminished by drug addiction.
On XL boss Richard Russell's second attempt at re-contextualizing a grizzled African-American musical icon, the concept doesn't fare quite as well. Gil Scott Heron's last recording was successfully bleak and shocking for its lack of conventional soul sounds. With Womack, who in many respects is synonymous with soul music, this approach is simply wrongheaded.