It’s to be expected that Bobby Womack’s soul croon is cracked with emotion and disrupted from years of not just addiction, but merely living. However, despite the man being 68 years old and recently diagnosed with cancer for the second time, he doesn’t sound entirely world-weary just yet. In contrast, Richard Russell‘s collaboration with the late Gil Scott-Heron unearthed a soul legend who sounded as if the hangman was hounding his every utterance. This proved to be true. But despite Womack’s woes, The Bravest Man In the Universe showcases a dogged, relentless talent triumphing in the face of, rather than simply because of, his collaborators.
The danger for Russell and his co-conspirator here, a certain Damon Albarn, is that the weight of their presence could easily overcome that of the man whose name adorns the album cover. Albarn’s sheer ubiquity has endowed almost any release with his name attached a certain gravitas. Similarly, XL Recordings boss Russell’s endeavours, spearheaded recently through his Fresh Touch outfit and their recent Ethiopian EP, seemed to revolve around a welding of African sounds to more Western traditions. Whether this is a simple re-treading of colonial impulses is open to debate, but the fact is that there’s a certain cultural currency at work here which could have easily swallowed up a lesser light than the venerable Mr Womack.
But for a man who has collaborated with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, “don’t let anybody turn you ‘round!’” is the clarion call, as articulated on album closer Jubilee. Womack’s most recent critical and commercial triumphs are his outstanding trilogy of soul/R n’ B albums from the mid ’80s – The Poet, The Poet II and So Many Rivers – but the R n’ B offered here is a deconstruction of the genre. Where once slick grooves honeyed the gospel exultations, now Womack works for and finds spaces amid Russell’s samples, while Albarn’s skeletal piano sketches drop in and out of consciousness. Womack sounds as urbane and sophisticated as ever but it’s an urbanity scorched by memory and determined in its vitality.
Russell has peppered the album with vocal samples, ranging from Womack’s one-time mentor turned nemesis Sam Cooke to the aforementioned Scott-Heron. This neatly places Womack within a lineage, but it’s one which the man seems uncomfortable in. The most successful pairing is the most current, as Lana Del Rey rises to the occasion on the gorgeous Dayglo Reflection. Womack croons with an ease unmatched elsewhere on the record; the startling otherness of Del Rey’s vocal aligns majestically with the ghostly presence lurking within the album as a whole. On the other hand, a much less effective pairing brings Fatoumata Diawara to the proceedings on Nothin’ Can Save Ya, which is hampered by a laboured vocal from both vocalists and an uninspired brass synth backing. The intention is surely joyous; the execution is rather doleful.
This is but a minor mis-step. Musically, the power-soul trio have managed to not trip over each other despite every opportunity so to do, and each is afforded the requisite respect to make an imprint without over-imposing. The aforementioned spaces ensure that Womack’s vocal is given ample opportunity to breathe throughout. The traditional gospel tune Deep River is delivered with a strummed acoustic guitar backing but the real revelation is the revisiting of Whatever Happened To The Times. Originally featured on the aforementioned So Many Rivers, this reworking is astonishing in fashioning a death rattle bass drum pattern, sustained organ notes and all manner of indecipherable samples, linked by Womack’s emotionally charged delivery. It’s an undoubted show-stopper, a remarkable re-interpretation and nearly renders the rest of the album superfluous.
But not quite. The Bravest Man In The Universe is a success. It doesn’t re-invent Womack as some sort of lost beacon of soul, nor is it an ersatz look at the career trajectory of a legendary figure. Instead the album posits Womack as a restless spirit, ever expository, invigorated and emboldened by age and experience.