Album: Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man In The Universe
Bobby Womack is a soul singer’s soul singer who's lived a few lifetimes worth of spirit-leavening pain. Sam Cooke, his famous music mentor, died tragically at 33 and Womack’s scandalous marriage to Cooke’s suicidal widow, Barbara, led to his being blacklisted in the music industry for years. His firstborn son, Vincent, committed suicide at 21 and another son, Truth, suffocated as an infant partly as a result of Womack’s cocaine addiction.
He’s recovered from substance dependency and recently beaten back colon cancer with a successful surgery and positive diagnosis. It could be that Womack’s survival comes from the power of his own gut-spilling soul music and The Bravest Man in the Universe, Womack’s 27th album in a 50-plus year career, is a worthy addition to his catalogue.
Originally invited to appear as a guest vocalist on the digi-animated British group Gorillaz’ disc Plastic Beach (2010) at the behest of the group’s singer/co-creator Damon Albarn, Womack eventually returned to the studio with Albarn, along with XL Recordings label head/producer Richard Russell and Womack’s longtime co-lyricist Harold Payne, to record an electronica-infused soul album. Bravest Man has just the right amount of barebones beats and glitchy samples to make it sound modern and forward-looking without distracting from Womack’s rich storytelling ability.
Womack’s scratchy horn-blast of a tenor voice evokes that Old Time Gospel mixed with the nighttime blues, and it really cooks on songs like “Stupid,” his plain warning to people of faith to watch out for money-hungry mega-church preachers whom Womack likens to any other shady street hustler.
“What they feed ya, ya start to believe / Givin’ you just enough to make you need it,” sings Womack, who’s a minister’s son himself. “Dayglo Reflection,” his duet with pop newcomer Lana Del Ray, is a curious combination of voices that seems a risky choice in theory, but is absolutely gorgeous in execution. Crooning about romance, the singers well up with melancholy as their lyrics gaze down at planet Earth from their heaven-bound love affair.
Matters of the heart—especially the messy, better-left-unsaid stuff—are the 68-year-old soul man’s specialty, mainly because he’s always so honest and genuinely confessional without pandering for pity. It sometimes hurts to hear the man sing, especially when he stirs up long-buried emotions from their hiding places.
But as Sam Cooke says in a sampled interview snippet that opens the Del Ray duet on The Bravest Man in the Universe, advanced age and maturity actually enhances a soul singer’s gift. By that logic, Womack’s renewed will to share new stories and puzzle over new questions of the heart is an event in music that still matters. Sing on, mighty heart, sing.
Written by Sun Singleton