BOBBY WOMACK: THE BRAVEST MAN IN THE UNIVERSE (2012)
1) The Bravest Man In The Universe; 2) Please Forgive My Heart; 3) Deep River; 4) Dayglo Reflection; 5) Whatever Happened To The Times; 6) Stupid Introlude; 7) Stupid; 8) If There Wasn't Something There; 9) Love Is Gonna Lift You Up; 10) Nothin' Can Save Ya; 11) Jubilee (Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around).
Flip forward almost thirty years. For almost a decade after his Beverly Glen albums, Bobby went on riding from one short-lived record contract with a little-known label to another, releasing albums that never charted, rarely attracted any (positive) critical attention, and went out of print so quickly that, in the end, I sort of gave up upon trying to locate them, especially since there is relatively little hope that the chase would be well worth the catch. Then, after 1994's boldly titled Resurrection (which was anything but), he ceased writing songs altogether, and, apart from a Christmas album from time to time, sank into near-complete seclusion — not that I blame him at all, considering the dire fate of modern R&B, a genre Bobby had worked so much for.
Then something really weird happened, one of those accidental turns of events that generate an auspicious opportunity — none other than Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame contacted Bobby with a suggestion to work together. Apparently, the man was a fan of Womack's classic material, yet simply being a fan is one thing, and actually going out all the way is quite another: an Albarn / Womack collaboration, without prior notice, would be quite an unlikely combination. It was Bobby's daughter (a closet Gorillaz fan?) who convinced her father to accept the invitation, and this first led to Bobby adding vocals to several Gorillaz tracks — and then, in return, to Albarn co-writing and co-producing a brand new Bobby Womack album, his first and, so far, only one in the 21st century.
Based on this information alone, you can easily tell without even hearing it that The Bravest Man In The Universe would be somewhat of a «special» record. Critics fell all over it, not necessarily because they loved it, but probably because they'd never heard anything quite like it. And, indeed, the record defies simple analysis — each of its ingredients is not at all special or even all that good in itself, but together, Albarn and Womack create a puzzling combination that you can love or hate, but cannot ignore.
Almost in its entirety, the album is electronic — loops, beats, cycles, lots of programming, the usual thing, not too surprising, considering that it all stemmed from Gorillaz anyway. On top of these electronic grooves, which are usually moody and minimalistic, Womack records his vocal melodies — shaky and a bit gargly in an elderly manner, but still capable of an emotional grip — to work out a series of reflections on life, love, the past, the future, man's destiny, and even on those who use the Lord's name in vain, ʽStupidʼ being his lyrical answer to Genesis' ʽJesus He Knows Meʼ, in a way. The two are aided in this (un)godly mix by Albarn's co-worker Richard Russell, and big trendy femme-fatale™ star Lana del Rey makes a guest appearance on ʽDayglo Reflectionʼ; other than that, the studio is empty — quite an unusual deal for Bobby.
Does it «work»? I don't know. In all honesty, I would say that it doesn't. It is intriguing to see Albarn take the old chum in the studio and provide him with a background of drum machines, bleeps, pings, and synthesized sonic veils (he does play some live instruments from time to time, too, but they are not so much upfront) — but none of this stuff seems tailor-made to suit Bobby's style. The electronic and vocal melodies are synchronized, yet it is hard for me to imagine Bobby drawing actual inspiration from these sounds and using it for his own vocal delivery. Albarn says that he gave instrumental demos to Womack, who would then write lyrics around them — I do wonder what those demos were and whether they were not simply played on acoustic guitar, because it is hard for me to imagine Bobby putting lyrics and vocal melodies on top of these electronic arrangements. (It is even harder for me to imagine Bobby, with his life-long penchant for guitar and funky groove, liking Albarn's and Russell's production, but at least officially he did).
Nevertheless, at least these arrangements try to be creative, unlike, say, the generic Eighties production on The Poet series — the title track, for instance, puts a thin, moody veil of strings and some minimalistic piano tinkles on top of the programmed percussion, giving the song an ambient feel, that is, something previously unthinkable for a Bobby Womack song. The title is formally cut out of the song's refrain — "the bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first" — but could easily be seen to refer to Bobby himself, of course, as it must have taken him quite a bit of bravery to go along with such a radical reinvention of himself.
«Classic» Bobby makes a brief appearance on the traditional tune ʽDeep Riverʼ, where the man is featured solo with an acoustic guitar — barely two minutes in all, just to give us a brief reminder of what it used to be like, yet it manages to take a good shot at winning top prize in that short time span, especially when placed next to ʽDayglo Reflectionʼ, a self-consciously «mystical-romantic» composition where the main hero is not Bobby, but rather the perfidiously crowned «siren of the 2010s», large-lipped lady Lana del Rey that, according to everything I've heard and seen of her, is the perfect embodiment of phoniness in «sensual pop art».
Unfortunately, this is not the only song where there is too much going on and not nearly enough Bobby Womack — upbeat «dance» tunes like ʽLove Is Gonna Lift You Upʼ and ʽJubileeʼ also sound more like Albarn and Russell's take on making an electronic facsimile of classic R&B than songs that merit and justify Womack's presence on them. (ʽJubileeʼ is kinda fun, though, with its big badass bass drum pounding out the tribal beat like crazy — the one track on the album where, instead of scratching or wracking your head, you might just be tempted to lose it for a bit.).
But on most of the ballads, Bobby does sing as if he cared, and his ruminations on the world, the times, and even the exorbitant fake preachers sound exactly like they should — troubled, but tightly controlled and technically sound confessions of a worn and torn, but still viable old man. Actually, the age is only being betrayed by a little extra hoarseness and maybe just a tad lessened range (which was never that big to begin with): no decrepit relic here, even if he has to struggle a bit to strike out the anger necessary to fuel ʽStupidʼ (that's the one about the preachers).
I give the album a thumbs up, first and foremost, not for «quality» as such, but for its unusualness (I was going to write «novelty factor», but we are talking of a feat rather than a gimmick here, so that might be a little demeaning). The very fact that something like this came out in 2012 deserves recognition — and, let's face it, it could have been worse in all possible respects (even Lana del Rey at least has her own brand of phoniness, where they could have invited some completely faceless chick instead, out of millions available). The Bravest Man In The Universe should not be judged as a collection of songs — it's more of an experimental modern art lick on an old canvas, where some will pretend to going gaga over the modern art, while others will simply admire the good old art of weaving canvas. Personally, I'm just glad the old guy can still sing with so much feeling — and a big thank you to Damon Albarn at least for ensuring that the arrangements always stay minimalistic enough to let that voice soar and flutter all over them.
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