Album of the week : The Bravest Man In The Universe - Bobby Womack

A scriptwriter couln’t make up Bobby Womack’s life

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1944, he first came to prominence as a teen recording star with his brothers as The Valentinos.  The group caught the attention of soul legend Sam Cooke, who managed and mentored the group, and encouraged Womack to allow The Rolling Stones to record his song, ‘It’s All Over Now’, which became the group’s first number one in the UK.

Cooke and Womack developed a particularly close friendship, which is perhaps why Womack, thought it was logical to marry Cooke’s widow, Barbara Campbell, only months after the singer’s murder in December of 1964. The couple only waited that long, because Womack was still too young to get married without a parent’s permission. Womack publicly hints at the relationship on his 1985 track ‘I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much’, about a man who falls in love with his best friend’s wife

Womack and Campbell shared a tumultuous relationship for five years, including an affair with Campbell’s daughter Linda (his step-daughter). The relationship ended when Campbell shot Womack. Then Womack’s only son with Campbell committed suicide in the mid-1980s, an infant son he had with his second wife died a crib death, and a third son is banged up for second-degree murder.  Add to the mix his struggles with drug addition, and his recent bout with a benign tumor in his colon and pneumonia, and Bobby Womack’s life seems like a reality show in the making

But through it all, there was always the music. Womack’s credentials are nothing short of awesome. This is the man who wrote George Benson’s Breezin’, recorded Mercedes Benz with Janis Joplin, played guitar on Sly and the Family Stone’s Family Affair, on Elvis’ Suspicious Minds, on Ray Charles’ Heat of the Night, Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher Man and Aretha’s Chain of Fools and Natural Woman

For The Bravest Man in the Universe, his first studio album of original music since 1994,  he draws from his very deep well of experience, and pulls the full story together for one 1o track statement of pure genius

The album opens, somewhat creepily,  with a spoken word sample from Sam Cooke; “As a singer grows older, his conception grows a little deeper because he lives life and he understands what he’s trying to say a little more.” These words are clearly the album’s overarching theme, saying that what follows will come from a wizened mage remembering where he’s been and recounting lessons he’s learned

Cooke’s observation is woven into the title track where Womack says that “the bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first.” The other side of that theme appears in the next track, ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ where Womack pleads for absolution for wrongs committed long, long ago

As with the words of Cooke, another voice drawn from the grave appears on recordings drawn from the late, legendary jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron. The archival material helps set up ‘Stupid’, in which a preacher’s son delivers a sermon about those preachers ruining religion by grasping for your money

In addition to the sparse, haunting and usually electronic instrumentation, nods to the present include Womack sharing the stage with contemporary voices. For example, ‘Dayglo Reflection’ is built on drums, piano, and bass blended with spoken word audio clips and a duet with singer Lana Del Rey. Likewise, ‘Nothin’ Can Save Ya’ is a call-and-response cry with another young vocalist, Fatoumata Diawara

But the lyrics are mostly mournful reminiscences, like ‘Whatever Happened To The Times’ and the most musically bare song on the set, the standard ‘Deep River’. It’s just  Womack and his acoustic guitar singing the primitive blues. Appropriately, the album ends with another standard, ‘Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)’. Of course, this Civil Rights anthem is still an affirmation for standing strong, in this case standing on firm cultural roots while passing the torch on to a new generation and their way of doing things

The Bravest Man in the Universe represents dual traditions in contemporary pop music where iconic figures like the late Johnny Cash and Gil Scott-Heron are given the proverbial new coat of paint, or reasonably obscure Soul artists like the late Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette or Jimmy Scott are ‘discovered’ by some dutiful producer or record executive and introduced to a new generation of listeners

Like Scott-Heron’s final release, I’m New Here, The Bravest Man in the Universe is on the British label XL Recordings.  The label was co-founded by Richard Russell, who produced I’m New Here and shares production credits with the Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn on Womack’s new release. Despite the contemporary sonic clutter that The Bravest Man in the Universe is wrapped in, the voice is classic Bobby Womack.  Always a “knowing” vocalist—a voice that carried the weight of experience, loss, and redemption—Womack’s sound is very much like the Soul elder, he probably never thought he’d live long enough to become

Womack is one of the last links to a generation of singers—Soul Men and Women—who most explicitly linked the social vision of the Black Church with the political energies of the Civil Rights Movement.  The Bravest Man in the Universe is not just a sensational album, it’s also 1960s soul meeting the 21st century

Buy it here

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