Album Review: Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe

[XL Recordings; 2012]

Continue imagining yourself as invincible as you will, such is natural. But before taking on The Bravest Man In The Universe—soul legend Bobby Womack’s first original work in nearly two decades—be prepared to face a man who has long accepted his own mortality.

He isn’t afraid to display that acceptance; such is clear with one look at the album cover, featuring Womack’s weathered, wrinkled hand and its impossibly bent thumb. But the cover itself could be a brilliant microcosm for what lies behind it. That bent up thumb disrupts any preconceived notions we may’ve had regarding how a tired old hand should look. It’s the hand of a man with tricks up his sleeve.

Likewise, The Bravest Man In The Universe bears a pulse and liveliness we couldn’t have expected from a 68 year-old body that’s been put through Hell, as Womack would tell you. Vocally, he sounds most feeble in the opening moments of lead single “Please Forgive My Heart”; it’s not clear if he has the strength to even finish. But by the time the skeletal instrumental and its squirmy bass line have seen him through the first verse, he’s bellowing with the same force he did some decades ago, or softly crooning with an aged, soulful rasp.

To hear such a voice on fresh material—even with releases from such soul men, passed and present, as Gil-Scott Heron and Charles Bradley in the past two years—is a treat. Womack began a series of collaborations with Albarn and the Gorillaz beginning in 2010, the impetus for The Bravest Man’s creation. Here, the pairing of Albarn’s distinct keyboards and the drums of XL Recordings’ Richard Russell has made for a sound that’s completely unique; it’s also damn excellent.

And in truth, the experimental quality of the instrumentals on The Bravest Man In The Universe sets Womack in the present without risk of sounding dated to 2012. Albarn has created a beautiful recipe here: always-knocking bass lines, almost assaultive snare tracks, ubiquitous, too-clean synth strings (“Dayglo Reflection” and “If There Wasn’t Something There” feature them especially), and emotive splashes of piano and electric guitar.

Though, nothing’s ever too static. Every new listen reveals another flourish, another near-unnoticeably small stroke of brilliance: the way the Sam Cooke sample on “Dayglo Reflection” is slightly slowed the second time around, the way Womack’s vocals will be selectively echoed and dissolved on tracks like “Whatever Happened To The Times” or “If There Wasn’t Something There,” the way the tracks build wafer-thin layer at a time.

This frozen-in-the-present platform gives Womack the perfect space to look back on a life of tremendous musical success and deep, dark personal struggles. The Bravest Man is no death rattle, but aching wistfulness, guilt-laced ponderings and subsequent bouts of manic, jubilant redemption are plentiful, if not always obvious. For instance, aside from wisely placing peak value on the man “who’s forgiven first,” the opening track bears lines of brutal honesty—“When I build up so high/ I always know how to come down”—as well as broad rationalization—“When you stay in the sun much too long/ You try to find the shade/ Shade that makes you feel home.” Not many of us can relate to being under a spotlight of sun-like heat, but the insistence upon the destructive comforts of that dark shade (the veil of drug addiction, in this case) is pleasantly haunting.

On the other end of the album, over the delightfully cheesy carnival instrumental of “Love Is Gonna Lift You Up,” when Womack sings “Time will heal/ And seasons change/ And love will bring you past the pain,” it’s too good to be questioned. When he closes with a spirited adlib “I’ll be honest by your side/ For the rest of my whole-,” it feels warm, like the relieved resolution of a deep, tough talk with someone you love.

The challenge that The Bravest Man In The Universe presents doesn’t stop at the varying degrees of directness with which Womack chooses to put himself forth, or with the often painfully real thematic content. There’s a lot to appreciate. Like Lana Del Ray’s brilliant, deadpan goddess feature on “Dayglo Reflection,” the sampled industry commentary from Cooke that seemingly forgives Del Ray (“As a singer grows older…he understands what he’s trying to say a little more), and the decision to hand her the track’s reigns after one Womack verse. Likewise, Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara’s feature on “Nothin’ Can Save Ya” is similarly generous in length and ultimately stunning.

There’s also “Deep River,” a beautifully bare acoustic take on an old spiritual of heavensick longing. And, oh yeah, there’s “Stupid,” a granola banger of an outcry against dirty preachers. This, slid in between two masterful pieces of woeful longing for lovers and memories lost in the aptly titled “Whatever Happened To The Times” and “If There Wasn’t Something There.” Missteps are nowhere to be found.

No one could have really anticipated The Bravest Man In The Universe. Now that it’s here to stay, it’s hard to feel as though anyone deserved it. The Last Soul Man has given us another soul classic, but in an unflinchingly modern package. The artistry therein is, as listeners, all we could hope for. It’s bold, cathartic, and essential; a candidate for not only one of 2012’s best, but one of the most important records in all of American soul.