Bobby Womack begins his new album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, by singing “I have a story / I want to tell.” With a career dating back fifty years and nearly thirty albums, Womack has more than a story or two up his sleeve. For this latest release, he teams up with producers Richard Russell (co-founder and head of British label XL Recordings), and Damon Albarn, with whom Womack previously worked on the former’s Gorillaz album Plastic Beach. Although he is one of the great original popular soul artists, Womack has taken inspiration from his collaborators to create a decidedly electronic album fused with the soul music of his renown.
The majority of the album is constructed out of loops and beats, from the ballad “Please Forgive My Heart,” the thoughtful “Stupid” which features a terrific if too short intro from poet Gil Scott-Heron, to the jubilant bounce of “Love is Gonna Lift You Up” and “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around.” Womack does take an early opportunity to pay tribute to the spirituals he was raised on with “Deep River.” Although this acoustic track is under two minutes, it’s enough to wish for an entire album showcasing this earthier side of Womack.
But modernism is the theme here, and Womack further indulges it with guest spots by two under-30 artists: it-girl of the moment Lana del Rey, and French-by-way-of-Mali artist Fatoumata Diawara. As expected, del Rey vacantly croons through her track “Dayglo Reflection.” Her voice is pretty decoration that adds a touch of eerieness, but it has more in common with the electronic effects than Womack’s heartfelt, gruff voice. One wonders how she would sound on an upbeat track, like the uplifting “Jublilee.” Diawara fares better, with a less pristine, woeful performance that enhances the somber tone of “Nothin’ Can Save Ya.”
Happily, Womack takes a genre alien to him and with the right collaborators creates an authentic work. Often, this kind of endeavor is either a laughable lark (see Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood), or a complete embarrassing failure (see any rapping athlete, ever). How refreshing to see a success.