Album Review: Bobby Womack

the bravest man in the universe (xl)

68 year old Bobby Womack's 27th studio album is his first original material since 1994's Resurrection. After a prolonged period of silence, riddled by a cocaine addiction and a violent and turbulent private life, Womack eventually emerged from the darkness to deliver this celebrated comeback record.

After being enlisted by Damon Albarn to sing on Gorillaz's Plastic Beach album in 2010, Womack and Albarn struck up a friendship which led to the making of The Bravest Man In The Universe. And through Albarn's Congolese music project, DRC Music, Albarn also got to know Richard Russell of XL records, who Womack later signed to, resulting in the three men orchestrating a working relationship (and a co-production) for the album, along with Harold Payne, Womack's songwriting partner.

Opener and title track, The Bravest Man In The Universe, showcases Womack's distinctive and raw, sandpaper vocals as they're set against a stripped back, but polished beat with occasional piano chords echoing amongst suspended synths. The track is both minimal and yearning.

Please Forgive My Heart is a tasty contrast between the digitally-processed beats that drive the song, with Womack's soul-stricken vocals, oozing pain and strife. It's a beautiful combination of man and machine. Please Forgive My Heart is certainly the highlight of the record; the outstanding songwriting exposes Womack's bare, vulnerable soul and all he's been through, as he cries out lines such as "I could try to say I'm sorry, but that won't be quite enough. To let you know the pain that I feel, and It just won't let up."

"It feels like the sky is falling, and the clouds are closing in. Where did I lose control, where did it all begin?"

It's clear that each person brings their own signature to the album. Russell's beats and Albarn's ethereal chords are intertwined to create a sort of futuristic funk record, and despite Womack's soul roots, he sounds surprisingly at home in these modern surroundings. So much so, in fact, that Womack has so modestly dubbed it as "the best thing I've ever done." Cleverly programmed beats merged with simple and sometimes sparse instrumentation easily positions the record both in Womack's back catalogue, as well as in the musical sphere of 2012.

The sultry tones of American starlet, Lana Del Ray, act as a shimmering counterpart to Womack in Dayglo Reflection, while

Stupid Introlude/Stupid features the late Gil Scott-Heron (Russell being the man behind Heron's 2012 comeback, I'm New Here).

Love Is Gonna Lift You Up is an upbeat, disco affair - instilling the album's life affirming theme. While still refreshingly minimal in it's instrumentation, the production is clean and crisp, with some surprisingly current beats and sounds the main focus. The track's celebratory trumpets and repetitive hook make for a real feel-good vibe.

An electronic edge is given to Jubilee (Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around) with synth bass lines, impressive vocal layering, and crashing cymbals. Sounding more like a jam session, the song embraces Womack's free spirit as he delivers a mixture of spoken monologues and improv-like looped lines.

The only thing I would have liked to hear more of is Womack's signature guitar playing. Having spent a large part of his career as a Funk session musician for the likes of Sam Cooke, and of course, fronting his band The Valentinos, his playing only briefly appears on Deep River.

Although remnants of Womack's past sounds are evident on the record (the slow grooves of the 70's and Womack's soulful style), Womack, Albarn, Russell and Payne have made sure to embellish these points with flourishes of the present, initiating a new and compelling direction for the singer.