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Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man In The Universe (XL) ****
WHAT an unexpected pleasure this comeback album turns out to be: a sort of weird minimalist sci-fi take on soul, with Bobby Womack’s bruised grandeur, his ragged vocals raised from a deep and troubled well, set against pared-down instruments and assorted bleeps and plastic beats.
It’s almost a reinvention of soul music: soul without the strings and the horns and the whole lovely syrupy confection – just the soulful voice and music, and, seemingly, a life laid bare at the age of 68.
This album is co-produced by Richard Russell, who was behind Gill Scott-Heron’s 2010 return I’m New Here, and Damon Albarn, who worked with Womack on Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach. Between them, they have fashioned an unexpected landscape for Womack and allowed him to produce something only a notch short of a masterpiece.
The title track gets matters rolling as Womack’s resonant, lived-in voice rings out against auto-tune robotics. Stand-out track Please Forgive My Heart is a classic piece of soul, with the varnish removed and odd bleeping rhythms put in place: against the stripped-back, loft-living backcloth Womack’s heartfelt settling of his failings is especially powerful.
Dayglo Reflection features Lana Del Rey, and her sultry, ennui-infected vocals fit surprisingly well with Womack’s warmer tones. Another fruitful pairing, Nothin’ Can Save Ya, sees a guest slot for the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara.
Deep River is a gospel settling of accounts, while If There Wasn’t Something There has an uplifting surge of a chorus.
The sparseness takes some getting used to and you are left wondering if there shouldn’t be a bit more, but what you do have is the essence of the man, the same trick that Russell pulled off with Scott-Heron. And that’s what a good producer should do.