There’s not many soul legends left out there, so it’s always heartening when one of them releases something new. For Bobby Womack, it’s been a long time coming, and The Bravest Man In The World sees him come back brightly, with the help of Damon Albarn and Richard Russell.
Quite a few artists have been beneficiaries of Albarn’s Gorillaz project, through making guest appearances, and Womack is certainly one of those. Drug addiction, personal problems and the cruelty of irrelevance had left him in the wilderness for too many years before his guest appearances on Plastic Beach and The Fall, but they introduced him to a new audience and reminded his old audience what a talent they’d been taking for granted.
His last album of new original material was in 1994, but Albarn and XL Recordings boss Richard Russell have brought his sound right up to 2012. Russell, of course, was behind Gil Scott-Heron‘s comeback album, and The Bravest Man In The World takes a similar path, almost casting Womack as a special guest star in his own album by using samples and very modern production techniques that are a world away from Looking For A Love or Across 110th Street.
If anything, it’s an album aimed specifically at people who discovered him through Gorillaz, but if that sounds like a negative comment, it’s not meant to be. You have to make the kind of music that is relevant to today’s audiences if you want to be heard, and there’s no problem with that as long as you retain what makes the artist so special. Happily, Womack’s voice is still as powerful as ever, and the cracks that age brings only add depth and characters.
From the opening moments of the title track, you’re in no doubt that this is a Bobby Womack album, even as the production from Albarn and Russell swirls around his vocals. The only time he really fades into the background is on Dayglo Reflection, which features Lana Del Rey and allows her to dominate proceedings a little too much. It’s a good song, but would have worked better on her album than his.
The other main guest appearance is less invasive, with Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara blending in well with Womack and making Nothin’ Can Save Ya one of the best tracks here. Generally, the mood of The Bravest Man In The Universe is reflective and occasionally belligerent (particularly on Stupid and Jubilee), but there’s also moments of soulful bliss, like on Love Is Gonna Lift You Up, the most classic-sounding track.
Whenever a producer like Albarn or Russell gets involved with a legendary artist and masterminds their revival (Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash being the best example, obviously), there’s the risk of it seeming more like their project than his. But while Bobby Womack might not have made this kind of album without their input, his fingerprints are still all over it, as is his heart and soul. Most of all, it’s an album that blends his talents and theirs extremely well, and makes for a glorious return after 18 years. What more could you want or need?