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Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man in the Universe

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Artist: Bobby Womack

Album: The Bravest Man in the Universe

Label: XL

Review date: Jun. 27, 2012

Regardless of how much of a misstep The Bravest Man In the Universe might be (and make no mistake, this record doesn’t work), it’s hard to directly criticize Bobby Womack himself. He might not be quite as popular to a general audience as Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Green or Sam Cooke, but any soul fan knows that Womack is right up there with that quartet. As a member of The Valentinos, he helped lay the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll (their “It’s All Over Now” was a U.K. No. 1 for The Rolling Stones). His work in the 1970s, “Across 110th Street” for example, provided a soundtrack to the realities of urban living in the Nixon years. His subsequent experimentation with country illuminated the obvious but often overlooked analogs between white and black roots music. Yet, like any artist willing to take chances, Womack wasn’t above the occasional error in judgment.

The Bravest Man In the Universe, produced by Blur’s Damon Albarn and XL Records head Richard Russell, expands on the contributions that Womack made to the former’s Gorillaz project, and the music here leans much heavier toward that band’s electronica than vintage soul. There’s certainly nothing wrong with taking a more progressive approach to recording Womack, and while a tastefully done retro-minded album might have been nice, it would have also been fairly predictable. But the production here simply gets in the way. It intrudes on the songwriting, distracts the listener, and interferes with what are otherwise solid and sometimes deeply moving performances. Womack is the main event, and though Albarn and Russell are most likely more than respectful of this reality, they just don’t deliver.

Womack’s vocals are as wonderfully rough and heart-wrenching as ever, and, given his recent scrap with cancer, we should be thankful. There are moments here that seize on that voice and make one long for what could have been. A simple acoustic strum introduces “Deep River,” where Womack contemplates time, the future and regrets. It’s a spare, affecting track and one of the few instances where the listener is allowed to experience Womack unfettered of endless electronic layering and awkwardly positioned beats. This isn’t to say that every track needs to be either a precious homage or Daptone funk, but a computerized voice repeating “the bravest man in the world” a la Midnight Marauders–era Tribe Called Quest? C’mon, Damon, you can do better than that.

With the exception of the retro-futurist narrator that introduces the album, there’s nothing here that’s utterly egregious (although the Lana Del Rey duet “Dayglo Reflection” is as contrived a head-scratcher as they come), and it makes sense that Womack and Albarn would want to collaborate again after the former’s cameo appearance on Gorillaz’s “Stylo.” But Womack deserved a collaboration on his terms. The Bravest Man In the Universe is not that.

By Nate Knaebel

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