When Bobby Womack guested on the 2010 Gorillaz song “Stylo,” the tension between Womack’s gritty voice and the band’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi soundscapes helped put across a vision of a world where the synthetic is at war with the organic. But then, Womack’s entire career has been a study in those kinds of contrasts. A city boy with a country twang—gospel-trained, but preoccupied by the secular—Womack recorded a string of albums in the early ’70s that were as forward-thinking in their way as anything by his more acclaimed R&B contemporaries Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, and Stevie Wonder. Because Womack was more subtle in his fusions of pop, soul, and roots music, he never drew much attention from the major critics of the era, but he had hits (“Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “Across 110th Street,” “Lookin’ For A Love,” “Daylight”) and was eventually inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. However, it’s fair to say that Womack’s new Damon Albarn/Richard Russell-produced album The Bravest Man In The Universe will be scrutinized more than his ’70s classics Communication and Understanding ever were.
That’s okay, though, because while The Bravest Man In The Universe bears little surface relation to Womack’s best-known music, it is—like “Stylo”—in line spiritually with what Womack’s all about. Just as he did with Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here, Russell builds backing tracks that rely heavily on electronics and samples, and then Womack enters the mix almost like a voice pulled from some old record that Russell dug out. Womack sounds most present on the short acoustic gospel song “Deep River;” through the rest of the record, he’s more like a ghost, haunting the studio where Russell and Albarn are trying to make an arty dance record. Yet even from a distance, Womack asserts himself, steering Bravest Man toward what’s concerning him these days: the apologies he still needs to make, the mess the world is in, and the message he needs to impart that “Love Is Gonna Lift You Up.”
The Bravest Man In The Universe is a short album, but a full one, ranging from spooky laments like “Nothin’ Can Save Ya” to the frenzied song that immediately follows (and closes out the record): the exultant “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around).” The song that best exemplifies what Womack, Russell, and Albarn are up to here is “Dayglo Reflection.” This collaboration with Lana Del Rey puts her sleepy voice against Womack’s more urgent one, over a pretty piano and a skittering beat, and includes a sample of Womack’s old boss Sam Cooke talking about growing older—something Cooke, unlike Womack, never got to do. It’s that push-pull again: between the past and the future, the living and the dead, and the need to be heard while wrestling with the medium required to transmit.