He’s one of the great soul men. As far back as the early Sixties he was writing and singing (w/the Valentinos) timeless songs like “Lookin’ for a Love” and “It’s All Over Now.” Yes, you students of white guys playing the rock ‘n’ roll, those tunes were further popularized by the J. Geils Band and the Rolling Stones, respectively.
He’s Bobby Womack. Dude moved in on Sam Cooke’s widow before the greatest soul singer of all was cold in the ground. Yeah, he’s bad. His songwriting skills were undiminished, but by the late Sixties Womack’s performing career had little traction. The he surfaced in the Seventies in a big way. With a string of classic releases, including Communication, Understanding, and Facts of Life, Womack solidified his place in the soul firmament. His songs from the soundtrack for the flick Across 110th Street, featuring the era evincing title track, represented, along with Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, the transcendent musical statements of the Blaxploitation genre of the Seventies.
Womack also made some fine records in the Eighties, chiefly The Poet and The Poet II for the short lived Beverly Glen label. The man has staying power. Nonetheless, a recurring combination of drug issues, personal problems and career cul de sacs kept his profile low. Now 68, and on the rebound from his demons, Womack is back with The Bravest man in the Universe on XL Records, home to bands like The XX, Sigur Ros, Jack White, and Adele. The label’s one effort at soul resuscitation was the late Gil Scott-Heron’s We’re New Here (not a bad start). Bravest is stone, classic soul in composition and spirit, utterly contemporary in arrangement and production. And the synthesis of classic and current elements is successful in ways that make Bravest Womack’s best record in forty years.
Bravest is co-produced by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc. – for those of you who have spent the last twenty years under a rock) and XL label honcho, Richard Russell. Albarn’s eclecticism and openness to adventures in sound is well documented. Russell, now sole proprietor of XL, was one of the label’s three original founders. XL initially emphasized music associated with dance and rave culture. All of these histories impact Bravery. This is not your father’s rhythm ‘n’ blues record. The kind of electronic rhythms and programming associated with acts like Massive Attack, XX and the trip-hop genre generally are consistent throughout Bravery. The contrast between these rhythm tracks and Womack’s gravelly, gospel derived singing is stark, but the synthesis is seamless.
Russell and Albarn allow Womack’s acoustic guitar to emerge from the electronic-heavy mix at critical moments in the performances – in the beginning of songs as theme statement, after a sampled bridge or interlude, or at the emotional arc/conclusion of a song. The producer’s rhythm tracks are subtle, busy and propulsive as necessary, but never overwhelming Womack’s still strong vocal fireworks. Their deft hand is clear from the outset on the title track, which opens the album. The intermittent focus is on Womack’s voice and guitar, but minor key string seasonings, skanking guitar, synth-bass and drums, and whistling all contribute to the track’s flavor. Womack’s gospel-schooled singing is expressive, never excessive, as he wrings every ounce of emotion out of this universal hymn to mercy – Dig the way he turns a word like “one” in the song’s chorus into four beautiful syllables, at once precise and slurred.
Womack’s voice sounds ravaged on “Deep River,” stripped down to voice and acoustic, and signifying spiritual resignation. The dark side of the gospels is evoked in “Stupid.” Introduced by an ironic, caustic Gil Scott-Heron sample, “Stupid” scathingly walks the same landscape as Paul Kelly’s scorching “Stealing in the Name of the Lord,” a Seventies soul classic. Equally barren is ‘”Nothing Will Save Ya,” with a to-the-bone vocal turn by Fatoumata Diarawa, a singer from Mali who I will certainly investigate further.
Outside of the gospel and gospel-infused lyrics, Womack is bent on digging out of a world of heartbreak. He sings “I’m a liar, I’m in a Dream,” on “Please Forgive My Heart,” a falsetto apology that’s party electronic trip –hop rhythm, part old-school hand claps – all in service to a traditional r n’ b song structure.
A Sam Cooke recitation on artistic maturation begins and ends the cryptic “Dayglo Reflection.” A soul-jazz piano with a taste of Bobby Timmons anchors electronic rhythms. The much maligned Lana Del Rey guests with an effecting vocal that features her customary ennui-laden affect, elevated to another level of soulfulness by sheer context. Equally weird is ‘What Happened to the Times,” Womack’s “lollipops in the rain” imagery undercut by a counter-theme ripped right out of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy;” it’s all a little creepy and unsettling, but it by no means breaks the mood that Bravest sustains.
Straight up soul balladry propels “If There Wasn’t Something There.” Womack’s hook is in his phrasing on the line “coulda just walked away,” where he surely tells you that he can’t. Vocal samples, as elsewhere on Bravery, are mixed as if they were rhythm instruments; a curious digital descendant from “Tomorrow Never Know’s” tape-op trickery and ecstasy. “If There Wasn’t Something There’s” sunnier successor and counterpart is “Love is Gonna Lift You Up.” What the condescending reviewer from Pitchfork hears as “comically flimsy” is simply a breath of joy to these old soul fan’s ears. Bravest’s tone is indeed sobering. That hardly means that a bit of little hallelujah is, as their reviewer suggest “directly against the album’s general darkness.” And if it is … you know, so what?
The Bravest Man in the Universe is a bold collaboration between a deep soul veteran and two contemporary fellow travelers - going down the timeless road of soul. Bobby Womack sounds like what he is – a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and a rhythm ‘n’ blues legend, who is at once confident and clobbered enough to dig that he has nothing to lose.