Review : Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man in the Universe
GuardianIn his recent and at times mind-boggling interview with the Guardian's Alexis Petridis, the extraordinary Bobby Womack made the assertion that "bad as I been, I can sing my ass off, better than I could before". (You can read the interview with Womack here.)
The 68-year-old soul legend also said that his new record, The Bravest Man in the Universe, is the "best thing I've ever done". That's some claim even for him to make, particuarly given it sees him working with producers of a different generation: his former collaborator in Gorillaz, Damon Albarn, and Richard Russell, head of Womack's new label XL.
Alexis Petridis wrote: "The album, which sets Womack's careworn voice and acoustic guitar against clattering electronics, and mixes old gospel songs with guest appearances by Lana Del Rey, is a triumph. It may even be as magnificent as all the other magnificent albums Womack has released."...full text
BbcThey’re calling it a masterpiece. That’s the way when these beloved legends come in from the cold: so welcome is their return that weaknesses are overlooked out of gratitude for what they’ve already given us. Since Bobby Womack’s career has been more colourful than most, one is even more inclined to forgive his shortcomings: a former protégé of Sam Cooke (who went on controversially to marry Cooke’s wife), he worked as a guitarist for Ray Charles and Sly and the Family Stone as well as a writer for Wilson Pickett and Janis Joplin, and is most celebrated as an incomparable singer whose success was sadly diminished by drug addiction.
But is this long overdue comeback album – produced by Damon Albarn and Richard Russell, the man behind Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 return I’m New Here – worth the extravagant praise, or even Womack’s own claim that it’s “the best thing I’ve ever done”? Happily, and against the odds, the answer isn’t far short of affirmative.
Womack has already worked with Albarn on Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach and The Fall albums, and much of his first new material since 1994 occupies a similar space: ingenuously programmed beats, simple, even sparse instrumentation, and keyboards that often sound like they were rescued from a 1980s teenage bedroom. It’s a far cry from Across 110th Street’s string-laden soul funk, and yet Womack sounds surprisingly at home in these 21st century surroundings. On the title-track, his voice – sandpaper raw, overflowing with yearning – rides a stripped-back rhythm while a distant piano echoes beneath a layer of synths; and on Whatever Happened to the Times he pulls off a similar trick, the results not unlike one of Massive Attack’s bleaker moments....full text
MusicomhIt’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....full text
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