3 stars (out of 4)
At 68, Bobby Womack has a resume steeped in greatness: a gospel singer who worked with Sam Cooke, a gifted session guitarist who played with everyone from Elvis Presley to Sly Stone, a songwriter covered by the Rolling Stones, and the unforgettable voice behind a series of classic soul albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But drug addiction all but gutted his career, until Damon Albarn recruited him to sing on Gorillaz’ 2010 “Plastic Beach” album and tour.
Now with the help of coproducers Albarn and XL Recordings president Richard Russell (who also produced Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 comeback album, “I’m New Here”), Womack has put together a studio album of largely original material, “The Bravest Man in the Universe” (XL Recordings), his first high-profile recording since the mid-‘90s. It doesn’t try to re-create Womack’s past. Instead Albarn and Russell place his weathered but still-strong voice at the center of moody scoundscapes. Clipped, sparse, electronic beats and touches of keyboard create a smudged, melancholy atmosphere, which echoes some of Tricky’s mid-‘90s trip-hop albums. Conviction shadows every note Womack sings; he’s on intimate terms with pain and anger, but he refuses to bend to them. You can hear the struggle and the tension played out in the sandpapery tone of his instrument.
The title song is the sound of a secular preacher bringing his congregation closer to him, so that he can fess up to his failings and declare his determination to overcome them. It’s bracing stuff, made all the more dramatic by the burbling bass undertow and skeletal piano chords. Vulnerability oozes from “Please Forgive My Heart,” and Womack plunges into the “Deep River” of gospel he knows so well with just his voice and acoustic guitar.
The album thins out a bit after that. Guest vocalists Lana Del Rey and Fatoumata Diawara (a Malian singer) take over two songs, reducing Womack to a backing singer on his own album. “Stupid” is a cut below Womack’s usual song poetry, massacring fish in a barrel with a screed against televangelists. But Womack finishes strong with the spiritual “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Round),” in which the singer’s growl is layered into a choir of defiance. It adds up to Womack’s strongest work since the early ‘80s.
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