The news that 68-year-old soul music legend Bobby Womack was releasing a new album this year certainly came out of left field. Even more surprising was that it was being produced by Damon Albarn (of Gorillaz fame) and Richard Russell. But what seemed like an odd pairing is actually one of the best musical outings so far this year. Marrying weathered, old-soul vocals with Albarn and Russell's modern, electronic flourishes adds an interesting contrast that seems to amplify both to a level that they might not have reached on their own. From the very first notes of the introspective "Bravest Man in the Universe" to the celebratory "Jubilee," the crew take you on an unexpected journey that you may not know you wanted, but, in the end, are very glad you had.
The most noticeable thing about the album is the use of imperfection to create the perfect sound. Womack has seen a lot in his 68 years, and his gravelly voice tells it story. Rather than try to match it with the nondescript Auto-Tuned masses, his voice is allowed to shine in all its natural glory against the electronic backdrops Albarn and Russell have created. It's almost guttural on the opening title-track, which discusses the courage it takes to forgive someone who's wronged you. It's thrumming bass and programmed percussion play off Womack's voice nicely, adding an element of slickness to the song. On "Please Forgive My Heart," one of the most honest musical pleas for forgiveness ever written, his voice is dripping with the remorse of the lyrics, as contrite and repentant as a sinner in the front pew of church. The religious connotations are fitting, as the spiritual "Deep River" directly follows, taking Womack back to his gospel roots.
"Dayglo Reflection" is another example of making the imperfect perfect. The simple piano and skittering drums serve as Bobby and featured artist Lana Del Rey's voices are laid out flaws and all (there are several moments where Lana's voice cracks reaching for the verse-ending high notes). Rather than being off-putting, however, it gives the track a much more human feel. Bobby flies solo again for "Whatever Happened to the Times," another introspective moment that ponders days gone by. Speaking of days gone by, the late Gil Scott-Heron speaks from the past in the intro for "Stupid," a treatise against the false prophets of the world, religious or otherwise. It's full of the same stutter-stop drums of the previous album cuts, but somehow feels like filler on an otherwise solid album (though most would take Bobby's filler any day over what passes as singles on modern radio).
After a rather brooding two-thirds, the remaining songs brighten up the mood and speed up the tempo (well, maybe not "Nothing Can Save Ya," which features Malian songstress Fatoumata Diawara and is just as brilliant and brooding as any of the album's previous tracks). "Love Is Gonna Lift You Up" is as full of sunshine as the title suggests, with its bright synth horn blasts underlying the smile in Bobby's voice. The album's final track, "Jubilee (Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around)," is a full on electro-gospel stomper that, as the title suggests, interpolates gospel staple "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" and even a bit of "I Can See Clearly Now." However, though the gospel song's familiar refrain is very present, it mostly serves as a short jam session where the guys get to have a bit of fun in the studio.
Being his first studio album in well over a decade and his 27th to date, The Bravest Man in the Universe could've been a lot of things. While most folks in his age group are content to simply rehash old hits (whether it be their own or some other artist's), Bobby instead opted to forge new ground in his career and adopt a new sound. After hearing the album, it can be said that the risk most certainly paid off.