Bobby Womack, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ – Album Review
Ever since Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin pow wowed in the early ’90s to create the now epochal ‘American Recordings,’ intergenerational studio pairings have become de rigeur in popular music, if not a sub-genre unto itself.
The last few years have produced an welcome uptick in the amount of these studio experiments. from Questlove and James Poyser’s work alongside Al Green (2008’s underappreciated ‘Lay It Down’), to Jack White’s resurrections of country royalty Loretta Lynn (2004’s Grammy-winning ‘Vanlear Rose’) to rockabilly sex kitten Wanda Jackson (2011’s ‘The Party Ain’t Over’), these 21st century rebirths of 20th century icons have accounted for some of the best, most mature and surprisingly sturdy albums in recent memory.
Perhaps the greatest, most jarring example of this trend was released last year in ‘I’m New Here,’ an elegiac, final album from a bedraggled Gil Scott-Heron, whose croaking, crack cocaine-scarred bass was paired to excellence with production from XL Recordings owner and British electro producer extraordinaire Richard Russell.
Perhaps we should add “musical sommelier” to Russell’s growing list of activities. Russell and frequent collaborator Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame have now teamed up to resurge Bobby Womack, the R&B visionary, songwriter, producer, session musician, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and quintessential soul survivor. The result, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ — we’re happy to report — is not only a worthy sequel to ‘I’m New Here'; it’s a gorgeous, atmospheric, consistently compelling album in its own right.
Womack’s voice — that dense and clarion tone which, in its prime, elevated classics like ‘Across 110th Street’ and ‘That’s the Way I Feel About Cha’ — has been beat into a timbered patina that evokes decades of disappointment, drug abuse and family tragedy. This isn’t to say, however, that ‘Bravest Man’ is an album of defeat or resignation. In fact, Womack uses his aged vocals to great, even inspiring effect, alternately drawing upon his roots as a gospel singer in one song (the intimate, acoustic take of Afro-American spiritual ‘Deep River’) and evoking his broad-chested lothario stylings in the next (the strutting, heart-wrenching ‘If There Wasn’t Something There’).
Womack and Albarn have joined forces twice before, with Womack twice providing guest vocals to Gorillaz for ‘Stylo’ and ‘Bobby in Phoenix,’ two of the more underwhelming songs in the Gorillaz discography. But with Russell pairing his knowledge of dubby, Boiler Room-ready beats with Albarn’s affinity for lush chord voicings, the results are much more successful. (Save for the tinny, muzak-y ‘Love Is Gonna Lift You Up,’ a track shoved into the back of the album that is, well, fascinatingly lame.)
One of the coolest surprises on the album comes in ‘Dayglo Reflection,’ which features haunting interview snippets from Sam Cooke, Womack’s former boss, and what has to be the best vocal performance to date from Lana Del Rey.
But while a fantastic album — and certainly one worth a spin, especially for fans of Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and their experimental R&B contempos — parts of it seem unfinished, or at least in need of another draft or two.
In another universe, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ could have been a serious Album of the Year contender. Instead, we’re left with yet another beautiful document of an international, intergenerational musical kinship that just so happens to sound great on a summer evening.
And that’s certainly fine by us. Keep ’em coming.