If you Google Bobby Womack, the first result, as of late June 2012, is his official website. It’s pretty safe to assume that although it’s peppered with quotes about loss and heartbreak from his autobiography, Womack didn’t actually write the 68-year interactive timeline documenting his entire music career sitting on the homepage. The only immediate sign of Womack’s own influence on his very fancy, very modern website is a quote reading: “I was ostracised from the music community when I was 21 (on marrying Barbra Cooke, Sam Cooke’s widow). I feel like after 45 years Damon has welcomed me back in.”
Womack, now 68, knows the majority of young listeners are not familiar with his professional or personal history, which includes being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and performing with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Sly Stone over a fifty-year and 20+ album career. He also married Sam Cooke’s widow three months after his death in 1964, a move that derailed his solo career for several years as a result of intense backlash by the soul and R&B community.
The Bravest Man In The Universe is Womack’s first original album since 1994 and is produced by Richard Russell, the head of XL Recordings, who also produced I’m New Here, the brilliant final album by Gil Scott-Heron, and Damon Albarn, lead producer from the Gorillaz and Blur. It was Womack’s appearance with Mos Def on the Gorillaz’s song “Stylo” from their 2010 album, Plastic Beach, that resulted in his friendship with Albarn and ultimately in The Bravest Man In The Universe.
On The Bravest Man In The Universe, Womack abandons the soulful and suave serenades that embodied his earlier career and instead lets his voice reflect years of anguish and regret. His voice is rough and gravely at times, but always warm and full of passion. It’s a testament to his talent as a performer, as well as Albarn’s and Russell’s production, how seamlessly Womack’s anguished vocals can move from the traditional R&B tune “Deep River,” accompanied only by Womack’s lone guitar, to an ultra-modern and layered song such as “Please Forgive My Heart,” arguably the best song on the album, without losing any of its emotional power.
Instrumentally, the album feels repetitive at times, with certain songs blending together in a shared minimalism. Russell and Albarn are both masters of electro-pop, though, and while their obvious musical restraint on ultra-minimalistic songs like “Whatever Happened To The Times” and “Nothin’ Can Save Ya” is likely done out of respect for Womack, in order to focus the spotlight on him, some of the strongest tracks on the album are the ones in which Womack steps out of the spotlight, or at least allow Albarn and Russell to join him in it. On tracks like “If There Wasn’t Something There,” Albarn and Russell’s production moves away from sparse instrumentation to full-fledged song structures that give Womack’s truly beautiful voice something to bury itself in, proving that he doesn’t need to stand out front to shine.
This is especially true of the song “Love Is Gonna Lift You Up.” Easily the simplest song on the album, something Womack could probably record in his sleep, it’s also one of the most accessible. Womack’s gravely voice repeats the title of the song over a simple beat peppered with horns and a synth that sounds straight out of a Gorillaz album. It’s an uplifting and optimistic pop song in the midst of an album that’s obsessed with time’s ability to erase, destroy, and consume. Womack wants to remind us that even though the good things don’t necessarily last, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth it.
And this acceptance of the past is, more than anything, what The Bravest Man In The Universe is about for Womack. It doesn’t matter that whoever is in charge of his very fancy, very modern website feels the need to highlight every accomplishment in Womack’s truly remarkable career in an attempt to revive him from obscurity because this album is not merely a culmination of his career, but an extension of it. Womack uses this album to acknowledge his past without reliving it, to reinvent himself without forgetting what it took to get where he is today, something he likely couldn’t have done without help from Albarn and Russell placing him outside of his usual musical atmosphere. And while occasionally the two electronic producers may have removed Womack too far into foreign territory, The Bravest Man In The Universe is an overall remarkable album, resting heavily on its originality and of course on Womack’s beautiful vocals.
The Bravest Man In the Universe was released June 12th on XL Recordings.