Bobby Womack’s first studio album of original music since 1994 invites the ghosts of music past into an almost futuristic new world. With musical settings ranging from plantation gospel vocals to avant-garde jazz, The Bravest Man in the Universe contains the familiar and the exotic, the earthy and the ethereal. It’s not your grandfather’s sweet soul music, but its presence fills every note.
On one level, Womack embodies so much of what African-American musical forms have been for over half a century. After all, the 68-year-old singer and songwriter has been a central figure in the music business since 1952. He performed on his first recording at the age of 10, and has worked with Aretha Franklin, The Box Tops, Joe Tex, and Patti LaBelle. He composed songs for Wilson Pickett, Janis Joplin, George Benson, and most famously wrote The Rolling Stones hit, “It’s All Over Now.”
Throughout the decades, Womack has never been shy about adapting to changing times and working in a variety of genres and sub-genres of gospel, R&B, soul, funk, and jazz. True enough, he hit both the highest highs and lowest lows in an uneven musical career while surviving a personal life marked by stark tragedies. Now, Womack draws from this very deep well and pulls the full story together for one 11 track statement, The Bravest Man in the Universe.
But the man at the microphone isn’t centered in any typical R&B framework, and here’s where co-producers Damon Albarn and Richard Russell come into the picture. Both deserve considerable credit for the often experimental architecture, textures, colors, and tones of this collection. According to Russell, as stated on Womack’s official website, “Bobby seemed to relish the opportunity to make something modern and original, and embraced and encouraged the use of unusual beats and sounds.” As a result, the album conspicuously seeks to sound like nothing Womack has done before while simultaneously creating an elder statesman’s very personal self-portrait.
To begin, the album opens with a spoken word sample from the late Sam Cooke, Womack’s acknowledged mentor: “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.” These words are clearly the album’s credo, saying that what follows will come from a wizened mage remembering where he’s been and recounting lessons he’s learned. Cooke’s observation is woven into the title track where Womack says that “the bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first.” The other side of that theme appears in the next track, “Please Forgive My Heart,” where Womack pleads for absolution for wrongs committed long, long ago. As with the words of Cooke, another voice drawn from the grave appears on recordings drawn from the late, legendary jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron. The archival material helps set up “Stupid,” in which a preacher’s son delivers a sermon about those preachers ruining religion by grasping for your money.
In addition to the sparse, haunting and usually electronic instrumentation, nods to the present include Womack sharing the stage with contemporary voices. For example, “Dayglo Reflection” is built on drums, piano, and bass blended with spoken word audio clips and a duet with singer Lana Del Rey. Likewise, “Nothin’ Can Save Ya” is a call-and-response cry with another young vocalist, Fatoumata Diawara. But the lyrics are mostly mournful reminiscences, like “Whatever Happened to the Times” and the most musically bare song on the set, the standard “Deep River.” It’s simply Womack and his acoustic guitar singing the primitive blues. Appropriately, the disc ends with another standard, “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around).” Of course, this Civil Rights anthem is still an affirmation for standing strong, in this case standing on firm cultural roots while passing the torch on to a new generation and their way of doing things.
I can understand why many listeners might find the experience a bit unsettling. There’s nothing comparable to Womack’s radio-friendly hits like “Looking for a Love.” Not all the chapters of this autobiography are a good match for the gritty Womack and the often abstract arrangements that sometimes seem more contrived than organic. While given generous time on their respective songs, the lady vocalists sound young. One wishes Womack had been paired with voices of his own generation as the intention is to tell us what one scarred man has to say looking back with wisdom, regret, and an awareness of the wide well of influences he has made part of himself. Womack, Albarn, and Russell may not have been exactly courageous developing The Bravest Man in the Universe, but few other such artists are willing to take risks like these. This is an album worthy of respect if not unreserved admiration. It’s absolutely a collection worthy of an audience above and beyond those who already appreciate the once and future “Midnight Mover.”