Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Album Review: Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe (2012)

Bobby Womack’s colourful life story is so rich with melodrama, tragedy, and ultimately triumph, it’s not too difficult to imagine that sooner or later a warts and all blockbusting biopic will be in the offing. It will probably take someone of Spike Lee’s eminence to do it any real justice, but whatever form it takes, there won’t be a shortage of raw source material to draw from.

From his early life as a child guitar prodigy within a very musical family, to his troublesome early years and the controversy surrounding his marriage to mentor Sam Cooke’s widow. From the lost years of substance-induced oblivion, and the occasional aborted comeback, right on through to 2012, and this, the release of his latest album, The Bravest Man In The Universe. Throw in a recent colon cancer scare, and you soon realise that Womack, in addition to possessing one of soul music’s more distinctive voices, is the archetypal soul survivor.

Yes, the 2012 version of that voice is to all intent and purpose, rather shot, or at the very most now only a mere echo of what it once was. But soul was never about the perfect singing voice. It is about a feeling, an attitude, a struggle … soul, like almost every other genre, is simply an extension of the blues. And besides, ask anyone who has ever felt the full force of Womack’s seminal ‘Across 110th Street’ whether or not Womack’s take on soul has to be smooth to hit the mark. It is that gruff, lived-in vocal that gives him his power.

Now 68, and still battling serious health issues, Womack has launched yet another comeback with The Bravest Man In The Universe. Unfortunately for him, critics haven’t been overly kind thus far. The late Gil Scott Heron’s 2010 release I’m New Here set a high benchmark for any old-school soul survivor attempting a post-Millennium rebirth, and the fact that Womack also collaborated with I’m New Here producer Richard Russell on The Bravest Man means comparison between the two pieces of work is never far away … for better or for worse. A backlash that reeks of lazy, “done it, already-got-the-tee”, closed mindedness.  

Plus, the whole old-style-soul meets modern studio technology debate further exacerbated unfavourable comparison between Womack’s latest work and that of Gil Scott Heron. Jamie xx produced a feted remix version of I’m New Here (titled We’re New Here), which somehow seems to have put the spotlight firmly on the contribution of The Bravest Man’s co-producer Damon Albarn. Was Albarn simply trying to emulate his younger indie contemporary with his own dalliance into old style soul? … critics can be an unfairly cynical bunch at times and this angle has been explored relentlessly by those seeking to box up Womack’s effort.

But that’s surely the wrong way to look at it. Why not take The Bravest Man In The Universe for what it is? Consider it on its own merits? Why always the need to qualify and compare? Because that’s what critics do. I find myself doing it all the time. None of that stuff will have been important to Womack though, and I doubt it barely registers in terms of Albarn’s own motives. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Albarn has been down this road already, long before Jamie xx would have even conceived of such a concept. Albarn’s Gorillaz project has been nothing if not soulful and funky, and let’s not overlook Womack’s cameo role there either.

The Bravest Man In The Universe is a fine collaboration in its own right. There’s a real feeling of self examination and of possible redemption on the album. Womack reflects back on certain events in his life; he apologises, he asks for a morsel of forgiveness, and he seeks equal portion of rhyme and reason. It feels like it comes from deep within. Womack is evidently still searching for some form of peace, and when you wrap up so many emotional extremes in such a lived-in frayed-around-the-edges voice, it becomes quite compelling listening at times. Almost like watching someone you love progressively recover from a bad car crash, and willing them on every step of the way.

Albarn, along with Russell, does add a fresh production twist, yet not all of the tracks work. The album can feel a little uneven at first, a little front-loaded, but the highlights feel honest and perhaps even genuinely cathartic for Bobby Womack. Most of those high points can be found in the opening four tracks: the title track – an opening statement of intent pinned against a backdrop of pulsating bass and murky keyboard. The reflective ‘Please Forgive My Heart’. The interlude-like gospel tinged ‘Deep River’. And ‘Dayglo Reflection’ – a slightly oddball yet highly palatable hook up with Lana Del Rey.

The rest all just feels a bit meh, like the bolt had been shot in the opening sequence of tracks, and thereafter Womack struggles to retain the same sense of momentum.

So it isn’t The Poet - my first exposure to Womack’s work, several decades ago now - and it isn't as strong as any of his other more acclaimed pieces of work, but neither is it the disaster zone some tastemakers would have you believe. The Bravest Man In The Universe is simply Bobby Womack, soul survivor, getting by with a little help from some younger friends; Bobby Womack doing the one thing that he still does better than anything else. What’s not to like?

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