Bobby Womack. The Bravest Man in the Universe.
XL Recordings, 2012. Bobby Womack: http://www.facebook.com/OfficialBobbyWomack or http://bobbywomack.com/
Debuting in June of this year, Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe is not only his newest album, but his first album of original work since 1996’s “Resurrection” and the cover art lets you know that this is no ordinary album. A hand with a twisted, broken-looking thumb resting on the top (yes, top, I said it looked broken) of the hand, and the fingernails are painted black and white. That visual is a great metaphor for the songs contained within- crossing boundaries, defying categorization, and beautiful in its strength after adversity. If you don’t know Womack, he was born in Cleveland in 1944 to African American Baptist parents, middle child in a sea of sons. Coming from that to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is just the beginning of his bravery. Womack’s dealt with the death of two children, a career over-shadowed by his wife’s dead husband, and drug addiction, and brings that experience to his tunes.
The album is often grouped in “R&B,” but it definitely resides on the edgier side of that genre, with a feeling that harkens to Maxi Jazz and Faithless. Womack’s torn voice lays over crisp, clean beats for a striking juxtaposition that belies his personal strength. Womack has consistently been listed as an R&B artist, but he’s worked with musicians from Janis Joplin to Sam Cooke, Sly and the Family Stone to Aretha Franklin. This album shows that diversity well, while still staying mostly cohesive.
While this is no doubt a solo album given Womack’s unifying voice through the multitude of sounds in this album, the guest appearances add variety and flavor, and the producers truly play the role of artist. It starts off with a gorgeously brief opening of Womack’s gravelly voice over The Demon Strings, stating the full title of the album, “The bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first.” The Demon Strings performs in “The Bravest Man in the Universe,“ “If There Wasn’t Something There," and "Dayglo Reflection;" indiepop singer/songwriter Lana Del Rey performs on "Dayglo Reflection;" a number of other artists listed in under Personnel lend their voices to this piece of work that, like a piece of fine chocolate, takes time to appreciate, and only offers you the full experience if you wait and enjoy it a few times in different situations. From experience I can tell you that this is a great album to listen to with friends, a bottle of wine, and some quality food of your choice.
Many of the tracks are R&B feeling, with some hip-hop overtones, especially in the use of samples in many of the songs, but the ending definitely has an upbeat feel the would make a smash dance track if sped up slightly. As it is, "Jubilee" is bouncy and fun with some “Max’s wild rumpus” sounds, but slightly too slow to do much heavy moving to. The practice of sampling in "Dayglo Reflection" is very interesting in that the sample is from Sam Cooke’s “Soul.” Knowing the history of Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack, and that history’s impact on Womack’s career, this sample is not just acoustically well-done, but meaningful in the concept of the album- strength, bravery, and forgiveness. Gil Scott-Heron’s introduction to "Stupid Introlude" is poignant and moving, and "Stupid" is an ironic piece of social commentary condemning the church, considering Womack’s status as a preacher’s son. Some have called this track one of the weaker tracks, and while that may be the case, it simply makes Stupid a diamond in the rough, instead of a perfect princess cut, while it is still stylistically solid. The gestalt of this album is a wonderfully telling representation of true bravery- being able to lead, have the “vision,” and execute it while still acknowledging the tremendous contributions of others.
Personnel: Bobby Womack (Vocals and guitar), Richard Russell (Drum programming and effects), Steve Honest (Drum programming on If There Wasn’t Something There), Chris Storr (Trumpet on Love in Gonna Lift You Up), Jessie Ware (Backing vocals on Love is Gonna Lift You Up), Emma Muchando (Vocals on If There Wasn’t Something There), Lana Del Rey (Guest vocals), Gil Scott-Heron (Guest vocals), Fatoumata Diawara (Guest vocals), Richard Russell (Producer), and Damon Albarn (Producer). The Demon Strings Personnel- Izzi Dunn (Cello), Stella Page (Viola), Rory McFarlane (Double bass), Alice Pratley (Violin), Oli Langford (Violin), Nina Foster (Violin), and Antonia Pagulatos (Violin).
Tracks: The Bravest Man in the Universe, Please Forgive My Heart, Deep River, Dayglo Reflection, Whatever Happened to the Times, Stupid Introlude, Stupid, If There Wasn't Something There, Love is Gonna Lift You up, Nothin' Can Save Ya (featuring Fatoumata Diawara), Jubilee (Don't Let Nobody turn You Around)
Lisa Regula Meyer