“As a singer grows older his conception goes a little deeper because he lives life and he understands what he is trying to say a little more…”
The Bravest Man in the Universe is the work of a seasoned and talented songwriter bearing his soul in the most unadorned yet honest way possible. As the quote above from the album’s fourth track indicates, perhaps Womack has finally come to terms with his life and his art to the point where he could see things for what they are; would that we all could reach such wisdom at a much earlier age. Although Bobby might not be a household name, he is certainly no stranger to the limelight having started his career playing with Sam Cooke in the late 50s and working with the likes of Janis Joplin and Sly and the Family Stone. But, his more recent claim to fame was supplying his killer vocal track to the Gorillaz’ “Stylo”. If Bobby’s pipes blew you away there, get ready to be crushed by the power of this collection of songs he co-wrote with Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn – honestly, I think there are few musicians as talented and productive, yet under appreciated as Albarn, at least in the U.S.
Please forgive me if I get a little effusive over this record because it is heartbreakingly beautiful. If you heard the late Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here and fell in love with it, then this album will please you to no end. Let’s start with the fact that Womack and Albarn understand that presenting Womack’s vocals in their most bare and unadulterated form is essential. It’s not just because we now hear so many records with excessive overdubbing and manipulation. But what defines soul music and gives it its undying appeal is the singer’s vocal nuance(s): the spaces between notes and words where we hear the heartache, the regret, the anger, the recriminations. Listen to a Sam Cooke or an Otis Redding and tell me that you don’t’ find yourself resting and waiting on every note as though it will save your soul or crush your heart; and, this record follows in that tradition. But, it also adds a contemporary twist by introducing a subtle, yet rich layer of electronic beats from downtempo to trip hop to the more recent dub-step style. In short, Womack and Albarn have crafted that rare creation: a record that can be a chill soundtrack to an evening or offer DJs enough material to remix for a late night party. (Given Albarn’s presence in the project this shouldn’t come as a shock.)
Now, I am not going to go into Womack’s biography and life story because I don’t care for that stuff. I prefer to let the songs tell the story. From the outset, The Bravest Man… is a journey. Womack starts the record by calling his audience to listen to his story, like a preacher recounting a parable, except this is a secular parable with few details. Notice on the opening track how Womack eschews specificity for a general vocabulary of reminiscing with one exception, his statement of the defining characteristic of “the bravest man – “the one who can forgive first.” Is this Womack teaching us? Is he talking to the people in his life who’ve hurt him? Is it an observation? Or, is it all of these? That’s for you to decide.
From forgiving others, the narrator then turns to asking for forgiveness… for his heart; because for the narrator, the problem isn’t with his feelings or his passion (aka “his heart”). It is, as we all know better, our head and the thoughts contained therein that get in the way of what we feel. All words aside, simply listen to Womack’s vocal performance without focusing on the words and you will hear how it seeks absolution for a lifetime of wrongs committed. It’s powerful and arresting, and, dare I say, a modern Soul classic. Although this is the record’s most jaw dropping moment, the remainder is just as powerful, from the two traditional songs, “Deep River” and “Jubilee”, re-arranged with modern electronic and dub elements, to the pensive, otherworldy collaborations featuring Lana Del Rey, “Dayglo Reflection”, and Fatuoumata Diawara, “Nothin’ Can Save Ya” – I adore Diawara’s vocals on this track.
For me the two finest moments on the album after “Please Forgive my Heart” are “Stupid” and “Love is Gonna Lift you Up“. “Stupid” begins with a comical recording of Gil Scott-Heron reflecting on watching a preacher who has “lost his way” much like the people in Womack’s song. It’s not all doom and gloom though. Womack and Albarn offer their own reflection on how to transcend the challenges and heartache of our mistakes on “Love is Gonna Lift You Up“. Conveyed on a track mixing an 80s synthesizer sound, Caribbean “instrumentation”, and a Postal Service-like beat, it is the album’s moment of celebration and a track that will get you swaying from side to side. I anticipate this will find itself on many year-end lists. It has all the typical elements of what makes critics and pundits gush, and, in this case, with very good reason. It is a stunning record with great lasting power and another great record for the summer. This though is for the relaxing side of summer, for those evening when it is time to wind down or look back…
So start your own journey with Bobby and listen to The Bravest Man In the Universe by Bobby Womack in its entirety here.
…and enjoy a mellow weekend’s end.