Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man in the Universe (2012)

Bobby Womack
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Bobby Womack’s new CD The Bravest Man in the Universe shines The Poet in a new light while also being quintessentially Womack. It’s pretty obvious from the first beat of the title track what’s new about this Womack project. Producers Damon Albam and Richard Russell employ the kind of modern production techniques that listeners might associate with hip-hop, alternative music or techno.

Listeners won’t hear the soulfully lush productions that combined violins with the gospel tinged guitar playing that distinguished a cut such as “A Woman’s Gotta Have It.” Almost none of the songs on The Bravest Man in the Universe feature the funky bass line heard on “I Can Understand It.” Several critics have already noted that Albam, Russell and Womack made a conscious effort not to turn The Bravest Man in the Universe into a retro record.

Bobby Womack’s new CD The Bravest Man in the Universe shines The Poet in a new light while also being quintessentially Womack. It’s pretty obvious from the first beat of the title track what’s new about this Womack project. Producers Damon Albam and Richard Russell employ the kind of modern production techniques that listeners might associate with hip-hop, alternative music or techno.

Listeners won’t hear the soulfully lush productions that combined violins with the gospel tinged guitar playing that distinguished a cut such as “A Woman’s Gotta Have It.” Almost none of the songs on The Bravest Man in the Universe feature the funky bass line heard on “I Can Understand It.” Several critics have already noted that Albam, Russell and Womack made a conscious effort not to turn The Bravest Man in the Universe into a retro record.

Albam had a comfort level in using Womack in this fashion because he used the soul singer on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach. Womack lent his voice to a couple of the techno styled tracks on that record, “Cloud of Unknowing” and “Stylo.” So while longtime Womack fans might find it jarring to hear Womack backed by drum machines and keyboards, the legendary singer appears to have wanted to expand his sound, both on the other Albam projects and on The Bravest Man.

Ironically, there are two instances in which Womack, Albam and Russell do look back. In both, the producers move beyond the singer/songwriter’s 1970s salad days to Womack’s days singing gospel with his family and his association with Sam Cooke.  The first such flashback comes on the gospel song “Deep River.” On this track, Womack sings accompanied only by an acoustic guitar.  The other finds Womack singing a techno version of the gospel tune and civil rights anthem “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round).” The vocals on both tracks sport vocal qualities that are classically Womack.

Listeners to The Bravest Man will hear the soulfulness and honesty that Womack first learned while singing in the church and crafted into a soul man under Cooke’s training. Yes, age and substance abuse have weathered Womack’s voice. His instrument is raspier and Womack does not possess the range he displayed on classics such as “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.”

What the tracks on The Bravest Man lack in terms of soul-oriented arrangements, they possess in terms of Womack’s trademark lyricism and honesty. Womack’s appeal stemmed from the fact that he gave voice to the hopes, fears and frustrations of his listeners – and especially his male listeners. He sang “A Woman’s Gotta Have It” from the standpoint of a man who didn’t deliver what his woman needed and paid the price. Conversely, a cut such as “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” expressed the frustration of a man a wits end.

Womack is 68-years old now, and several tracks on The Bravest Man reflect a man looking back and taking stock of his life. That includes the title tune, which includes the hook “the bravest man in the universe/is the one who has forgiven first.” Womack, who was ostracized and nearly had is career derailed after marrying Sam Cooke’s widow, probably had to do his share of forgiving.

While numbers such as the title track and “Please Forgive My Heart” are deeply personal and introspective, Womack doesn’t shy away from “Harry Hippie” style social commentary. Nor does he neglect to set a woman straight, a la “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” The social commentary comes in the track “Stupid,” in which Womack rails against religious charlatans and prosperity preachers who appear to be the only one prospering. “They ask for money in the name of the Lord/And they line their pockets/keep you coming back for more/Dragging you down/chipping you away/Misleading you with all the things they say.” The only question is who exactly does the singer think is stupid – a system that allows these preachers to enrich themselves or the flock for being so gullible? The best art provides space for the listener to make up his or her mind.

The funky “If There Wasn’t Something There” is the one track that could find a home on risk-avoiding urban radio. This is an instant classic that finds Womack giving a woman a soulful reality check. Womack clearly has fun on this track, which allows him to show the youngsters that he still has some swagger left. 

There will be a temptation for some old timers to focus on what The Bravest Man in the Universe does not have. The instrumentation is sparse and because Albam relies so much on technology some might find it impersonal. However, Womack is incapable of making a record that is not soulful. A deeper listen displays the greatness that this record DOES have: insightful lyrics delivered by an artist who, despite the ravages of time, still has the phrasing, the passion, the honesty and the soul to elevate the material he is given. Recommended

By Howard Dukes

 

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