Review Summary: For his first album of new music in 18 years, Bobby Womack is given the same treatment as Gil Scott-Heron on "I'm New Here", with similarly interesting results.
For the first moments of Bobby Womack's The Bravest Man In The Universe
, one could be forgiven for thinking that they were about to hear a complete return to form for the legendary soul singer. And who could blame them? The album opens with nothing but Womack's (still amazing) voice belting out the album's title, with nothing but a simple string arrangement to back it up. But at twenty seconds in--when a slightly robotic-sounding female voice speaks the title, finally giving way to the glitchy synths that push the track along--they'd realize they were half-right. What they're hearing is Womack completely back on top of his game, but transported into a new era. This isn't even modern-soul. This is post-modern soul.
It all makes sense when you realize who's involved in the creation of the album. First and foremost is XL Recordings owner Richard Russell, who also helmed Scott-Heron's I'm New Here
with similar finesse. Secondly is Blur/Gorillaz/etc. mastermind Damon Albarn. As producers, the duo manages to work magic. Their soundscapes are completely essential to the album as a whole, yet at no point do they overstep their bounds. This album is still completely Womack's show, yet without their production the album wouldn't feel quite as vital. Take "Whatever Happened To The Times?" as an example. With its gloomy organs and synths bubbling underneath, the biggest weapon the song has is still Womack's weather-worn voice. And though the production never feels intrusive, it compliments his vocals in the best possible way. The album constantly feels like a group effort, and one that wouldn't work as well if it were missing a piece of the puzzle.
Even the few guest spots were chosen wisely. Some will be put off by the appearance of Lana Del Rey in "Dayglo Reflection", but trust me when I say that's their loss. With its strange, otherworldly samples underlying the mournful piano, the song is an absolute stunner. And while Scott-Heron's appearance is limited to a short, spoken-word intro, its a nice nod to an artist who did something similar with Russell just a few years prior, and is unfortunately no longer around.
Womack has had a life filled with personal turmoil, with problems from addiction, his controversial marriage to the widow of Sam Cooke, all the way up to his recent cancer battle, and it shows in the tone of the album. The album is far from upbeat, and it shows in the titles themselves, with songs like the wistful "If There Wasn't Something There" to the only slightly-peppier "Stupid". None of this is to say the album is an entirely dire affair. Two of the final three songs are upbeat, sunny songs that come through even brighter with the gloom that hangs over much of the album. However, the album highlight is still the single, "Please Forgive My Heart", which is where everything falls together perfectly. It's an old-school soul song trapped in an electronic body, a sound of the 70's colliding full-on with the year 2012. It's the track that encapsulates everything this album does so well: it caters to long-time fans of Womack while most likely helping him find new fans who may not be familiar. And if this album can make someone who falls into the latter category search out some of his older material, then it's successful. Luckily for everyone else, it just so happens that every other facet of the album is successful as well.