If not a bated breath affair, it could be said that Bobby Womack’s return has been modestly anticipated. In 2010, Damon Albarn’s successful cartoon side-project, Gorillaz, introduced a whole new generation to Womack’s venerated voice. It should also be noted that, one year prior and on a much smaller scale, Michael Fassbender sang the praises of and did a funny dance to vintage Womack in the independent film Fish Tank. Unfortunately, a colon cancer diagnosis threatened to point Womack’s career in the negative direction. Anyone with an inkling of Womack’s storied past (which includes some 30 years of cocaine addiction and a gunshot wound administered by an ex-wife) knows he is not a man who easily folds and thus he is now cancer-free. The title of his new release, his first of new material since 1994’s Resurrection, makes no secret of how formidable Womack is: it’s called The Bravest Man in the Universe.
That title of course serves multiple purposes. As Womack sings on the title tune, “The bravest man in the universe / Is the one who has forgiven first.” None of the songs or ideas here are revolutionary, exactly, but with Albarn and Richard Russell — head of record label XL — acting as producers, it’s far from being a retread of Womack’s finest moments. On most tracks, Womack’s formidable but at times strained voice is backed by jittery electro and ethereal R&B. There is also a spare and beautiful gospel-flavored number entitled “Deep River” that serves as one of the album’s strongest tracks.
Perhaps to attract those not attuned to Womack or his legacy, there is also an appearance by Lana Del Rey on the song “Dayglo Reflection”. Next to Womack’s bristly yet soulful vocals, Del Rey’s delivery appears more wan and flimsy than ever; her vocals are so meek that one almost wishes Russell would have scooped a songbird out of the XL nest instead (even Adele would have been better). Yet as flimsy as the vocals are, the savviness of Albarn and Russell saves the day, as they chose a mournful backing track to compliment Del Rey’s delivery, turning her appearance into something ghostly rather than bored-sounding.
Another duet “Nothin’ Can Save Ya”, featuring Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, speaks to Albarn’s world music affinities. While the song will probably go largely unnoticed due to Del Rey being the more notable singer, it is a beautiful track nonetheless, a mishmash of downbeat piano, vocal manipulations, clipped electro beats, and Diawara’s heartfelt turn in the spotlight.
The songs surrounding this track are some of the album’s best; that they come at the outset of The Bravest Man shows that, like Womack, the album never runs out of steam. “Stupid” is an excellent R&B condemnation that features a Gil Scott-Heron snippet as an intro (Russell also worked on Scott-Heron’s final release, 2010’s I’m New Here). “Love Is Gonna Lift You Up” is an inspirational antidote with a chintzy but infectious drum machine beat and keyboard line. Closer “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Round)” ends things on a buoyant note. Although Womack’s voice takes on a scouring pad quality at times, there is no reason this album can’t attain the mainstream success it deserves. Although not quite the greatest release that Womack’s name has been stamped on (as Womack asserts it is), The Bravest Man will, with some luck, serve as a pleasant and uplifting gateway to Womack’s imperative back catalogue.