The conundrum with new releases from long-established artists – artists who have made their name at a time when music had an entirely different aesthetic and sound – is this: do I make my contemporary music sound like my old stuff, or do I bring my sound up to date? It’s a harsh decision.

There have been some blunderous artistic miscalculations under the banner of both these approaches, yielding hoary forced old-timey stodge or (generally worse) embarrassing concessions to “the kids” from past masters who should know better.

Joe Henry adopted the first approach with Solomon Burke’s 2002 ‘come-back’ album Don’t Give Up On Me to great effect, framing the mighty Burke in an old-school, analogue sound that just worked beautifully. On Bobby Womack’s latest, The Bravest Man In The UniverseDamon Albarn adopts the second approach – creating a landscape of almost Radiohead-like bleeps and bubbling basslines behind Womack’s care-worn voice.

And it equally works beautifully.

Produced by Damon Albarn, The Bravest Man In The Universe was recorded at Albarn’s Studio 13 in West London and New York’s Manhattan Center, is Bobby Womack’s first album of original material since 1994’s Resurrection. Co-producer is Richard Russell, who co-wrote the songs with Womack. Russell recently produced Gil Scott-Heron’s excellent I’m New Here ‘come-back’ album, so his empathy and respect for the artistry of these men is a living thing.

Bobby Womack wrote and originally recorded The Rolling Stones‘ first UK No. 1 hit, ‘It’s All Over Now’. He worked at Chips Moman‘s American Studios in Memphis in the 60s and played on recordings by Joe Tex and The Box Tops. He played guitar on several of Aretha Franklin‘s albums, including Lady Soul, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Everything about him is vintage, historical and old-school.

But the contemporary nature of Albarn and Russell’s tone-colours under Womack accentuate the warm and ragged humanity of his voice. The man is 68; he has had his ups-and-downs with dope and drink and damage of all sorts in his day. Sometimes here his voice is like a blue-brown brushstroke across glass; sometimes like a ragged tear, ripped into flawless metal. It could sound plain wrong: uncohesive and at-odds. But it doesn’t – Albarn and Russell get the balance just right, to the enhancement of both voice and backing: the voice sounds more human than ever and the beats sound slick, smart and funky.

The guests also pull the Womack sound into the present. Lana Del Ray sings the lion’s share of ‘DayGlo Reflection’, swathed in ghostly reverb. Malian diva Fatoumata Diawara sounds afro-regal on ‘Nothing Can Save Ya’. 

The intro to ‘DayGlo Reflection’ samples a scratchy snatch of audio: 50s Soul king Sam Cooke (Womack’s mentor and early employer) speaking about the evolution of the singer as artist. Cooke says “As a singer gets older, his conception gets a little deeper; he lives life and he understands what he is trying to say a little more…

In Bobby Womack’s voice, all around its burred edge and shot through the fabric of its threadbare silk, you can hear every day he has lived – his struggles and his joys, but mainly his struggles. For contemporary producers such as Albarn and Russell to capture this with such heart – especially set against a machine-made backdrop – is really worth you taking a listen to Bobby Womack and The Bravest Man In The Universe.

Published July 2012 on theorangepress.net

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