Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe
Having already worked with soul giant Womack on the Gorillaz track ‘Stylo’, Britpop veteran Damon Albarn twiddles the knobs alongside XL Records boss Richard Russell on The Bravest Man in the Universe, Bobby Womack’s first album of original material since 1994’s Resurrection. In the latest of a growing tradition of putting the old guard in unfamiliar settings, Albarn and Russell place the sixty-eight-year-old Womack’s yearning vocals into compelling, fragmentary post-dubstep soundscapes, to mixed results.
Bobby Womack’s is a life marred by tragedy, of illness and of ruinous penchant for the Devil’s Dandruff, and the lyricism of this record is reflective of this, as most albums of Autumnal renewal, whether made by Johnny Cash or Gil Scott-Heron, tend to be. Indeed, it is particularly easy to draw parallels between this effort and the late Gil Scott-Heron’s final album I’m New Here, in that Richard Russell presided over both soul reinventions. Heron is even sampled on the prelude to ‘Stupid’, an intense indictment of TV evangelists. The Bravest Man in the Universe however, seems to lack the same redemptive qualities that were so prevalent in Heron’s swansong.
Single ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ is a stellar cut, and is most certainly the most fruitful product of this experiment, its quiet power seeing Womack’s time-worn, but not tired, vocals backed by sparse electro beats and ethereal piano lines. Moments of real beauty like this seem to be few and far between at times though, and sadly notable in its absence is the lack of Womack’s guitar playing, something which would make his influence on Southern soul incalculable during his years as the go-to session player during Muscle Shoals’ heyday. This lacking is rectified somewhat on ‘Deep River’, a powerful spiritual which sees Womack accompanied only by his acoustic guitar – but it’s all too fleeting.
Glassy-eyed debutante Lana Del Rey lends chilly vocals to ‘Dayglo Reflection’, a cut which very much typifies the rather slow-moving nature of The Bravest Man in the Universe. Again, the pleasing electro-gospel of ‘Love is Gonna Lift You Up’ and the forceful beats of ‘Jubilee (Don’t Let Anybody Turn You Around)’ seem to be last-ditch attempts to provide a kinetic balance with the rather languid and somewhat desolate-sounding programming, which otherwise dominates proceedings, and ultimately makes The Bravest Man in the Universe a record that boasts as many surprising successes as it does brave failings.