Bobby Womack: The Bravest Man in the Universe – review


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. Last year XL's Richard Russell engineered one final album from the late polemical soul poet Gil Scott-Heron.

This year Russell, the gold-fingered head of the UK's most powerful indie label, has gone one louder, composing (alongside Damon Albarn) large swaths of 68-year-old Bobby Womack's 27th studio album. The Bravest Man in the Universe pairs Womack's robust period delivery with a backing informed by the insectoid tickle and crepuscular haunt of London's post-dubstep sound.

From its opening moments, the album sets out its stall as a 21st-century cut in which soul man and machine are no longer suspicious opposites. "The bravest man in the universe/Is the one who has forgiven first," declares Womack as a cello groans its assent. Moody beats usher in some piano chords, resolving into a new, considerably enhanced remake of trip-hop. If There Wasn't Something There almost sounds like a Kanye West track, which is a little ironic, considering Womack's scorn for hip-hop.

There are a lot of people jostling for space on this record. One odd guest is Lana Del Rey, whose dead debutante tones provide a strange but valid contrast to Womack's gargle on Dayglo Reflection. Womack is also joined by Malian siren Fatoumata Diawara, an entrancing presence on Nothin' Can Save Ya, one of the album's best offerings. There are samples, too, of Russell's last ward, Scott-Heron, and soul legend Sam Cooke, who arguably discovered Womack.

For his part, Womack remembers soul's heyday like it was this morning, and sings like the intervening 40 years haven't happened or, conversely, like they really, really have. He's been out of action for years, prey to cocaine addiction and a private life so violent and turbulent you need a diagram to explain it. Womack came out of this unhappy retirement in 2010 when pop enabler Damon Albarn recruited him for Gorillaz's last album, Plastic Beach. While Stylo was rekindling Womack's sense of the possible, Albarn was getting to know Richard Russell via their Congolese music project, DRC Music, a path that led the three men to Albarn's studio. Joining them was Harold Payne, Womack's songwriting partner.

If the record falters, it's where it lacks warmth, or tries too hard to inject it, as on Love is Gonna Lift You Up. There isn't anywhere near enough of Womack's guitar-playing, either, except a brief outing on the gospel snippet, Deep River. Given Womack's fame as a funk session musican, it's a regrettable absence. But overall this is a deeply satisfying meeting of many minds. While Albarn and Russell dominate the record's sound, like a newfangled west London Neptunes, Womack – suffering colon cancer – is upfront and centre, spewing contrition, bewilderment, disdain and yearning in a voice whose authority has only increased with age.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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