After Richard Russell and XL helped Gil Scott-Heron’s discography end on a high note before he passed away almost exactly a year ago with I’m New Here and the subsequent Jamie xx-assisted remix album, the label turned their attention to another musical legend who had struggled through drug issues, Bobby Womack.
The process of re-invigorating Womack’s musical career had of course, already begun thanks to Damon Albarn on Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach album and tour. Womack’s raspy voice screeching out the speakers on ‘Stylo’ was like a blast of air from some onmipotent god, not of this world. It was the first time that Womack had been heard on a popular record in quite a while. And so we turn to what Bobby Womack considers his first real solo album in 18 years (it’s been 12 since a Christmas album).
“I had given up on music. I didn’t have the desire that you have to have. I assumed that I’d stayed in the business too long… like an old fighter.” .
The Gorillaz appearances, an induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and the cocaine and alcohol addictions behind him, Womack was ready to start fresh. Now facing a brand new audience and generation thanks to Gorillaz, Albarn and Russell took up the task of producing a new album and what a return it is.
“As a singer grows older, his conception grows a little deeper because he lives life and he understands what he’s trying to say a little more.”
– Sam Cooke sample on ‘DayGlo Reflection’
On The Bravest Man In The Universe Womack sings in a voice burdened by legacy, hardship and experience. He’s a wise old man now at the age of 68 and he imparts his soulful knowledge in an uplifting manner set to a mix of electronic (drum machines and synths) and acoustic arrangements (guitar, piano), much like the texture of a Gorillaz record.
It’s a soul record but also an electronic one, putting Womack in a modern context. There are guest vocals from Lana Del Rey and the sweet Mali singer Fatoumata Diawara but neither sounds cheesy or crass. Neither does the album. Russell, Albarn and Womack worked on bringing a batch of original songs by Womack and his writing partner Harold Payne to life and the album is a melding of their own musical minds. Russell is all about the texture and mood, Albarn oversees the arrangements and Womack is the spirit guide. There are also two gospel renditions, the single guitar folk accompaniment of ‘Deep River’ and ‘Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)’ which is truly an electronic gospel celebration.
The result of all of this tinkering and texture is that the album occupies the same kind of space that Massive Attack records except Womack’s soul in both voice and character envelopes the arrangements brightening the dark edges, even though Womack is wrestling lyrically with big subjects: pain, redemption, love, grief, guilt and God.
Russell, Albarn and Womack have crafted an original that will stand up tall in the Womack discography. The benefits of The Bravest Man In The Universe is that new generations, myself included will be exploring his back catalogue past ‘110th Street’. (Aside: one of my first ever songs I remember in my life was Bobby’s brother Cecil and wife Linda, as Womack & Womack with the stone-cold classic ‘Teardrop’). Now cancer free, the old fighter has had his fire reignited.
This recent Guardian interview is a great read.
Bobby Womack is playing with Van Morrison and Tom Jones in Marley Park on Saturday August 25th.
Niall Byrne is the founder of the most-influential Irish music site Nialler9, where he has been writing about music since 2005 . He is the cohost of the Nialler9 Podcast and has written for the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Cara Magazine, Sunday Times, Totally Dublin, Red Bull and more. Niall is a DJ, founder of Lumo Club, event curator and producer of gigs, parties & events.