The Bravest Man in the World - Bobby Womack - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #81

The music and film buffs among you will likely recognize the name Bobby Womack as the man behind Across 110th Street, the blazing soul hit that was used in the opening montage of Quentin Tarantino’s much underrated Jackie Brown. The super-buffs will also know that Tarantino’s usage of it was actually a homage to the 1972 Blaxplotation film which featured the hit as its title track. Anybody who knows more than that about Womack, frankly, is just showing off. I certainly didn’t until a friend gave me this album a while ago, and based on the little I did know I was certainly taken aback. I was half expecting Womack to have aged gracefully, accepting his role as an artist whose days of popularity and creativity were long past and who had resigned himself to performing in his well-worn style because that’s what he knew and was good at. Lots of people do that: Chuck Berry, B. B. King: there’s no shame in it. Sometimes a musician’s time in the spotlight is startlingly brief, and while their message may only be relevant or popular for a short period of time, they still have to put bread on the table; they can’t just sit back and chill for the next 50 years.  So sure, a new Bobby Womack album, if it was a gruff reworking or re-recording of old hits, or new songs performed in and old style, sure I could understand. But good ol’ Bobby hasn’t done that: here’s an album that shows his creative juices are still very much flowing, hopefully for a long time yet.

Probably the most striking aspect of this album is the involvement of Damon “got-his-finger-in-more-pies-than-a-leper-in-a-cookery-class” Albarn. Mostly thanks to his influence, (I assume) The Bravest Man in the Universe integrates synthetic beats, studio manipulations and elements of dance, hip hop and other such offerings. Womack, ever the soul man sounds surprisingly at ease over these unexpected, often rigid beats, his voice expressing a perfect range of melancholy, jubilation and extreme passion. His singing is never allowed to be overshadowed by this strange mixture of styles, always subjugating and letting his message take the forefront. And like I said earlier, he does still have plenty to say. During recording Womack suffered a bout of pneumonia, and prior to the album’s released he was diagnosed, and successfully treated for, colon cancer. Knowing this, you can’t help but look at some of the lyrics and songs on this album as an old man’s reflection on mortality, but in a very indirect way: not brooding over the fears of the unknown or regrets of the past, but a tender and reflective statement of what, in his later years, he has come to view as important. The opening song, and the one that gives the album its title, repeats the statement “The bravest man in the universe/is the one who has forgiven first.” A bold, purposeful opening statement, and one that goes against the modern day mentality of me me me. A new commandment I give you: love one another. Perhaps it’s easier in hindsight, in one’s golden years, having seen the effects of all kinds of human behavior towards another, but frankly this is as bold and powerful a message as any kind of social commentary you’ll hear this year. On other songs, such as the bittersweet Please Forgive My Heart, almost Marvin Gaye-esque in his tender delivery, Womack accepts his shortcomings and limitations and pleads, almost begs, for forgiveness despite these limitations. “Please forgive my heart/It’s not that the problem/Lies anywhere in there/I’m a liar, I’m a dream/Goin’ my own way/Nothing to rely on.” On Dayglo Reflection, the infiniteness of love and the transience of the earth are contemplated in a dialogue with Lana Del Ray over a skittering drumbeat, melancholy strings and soft, brooding piano cadences. Soul music is often passionate and with an element of social commentary, but not like this! How utterly unlike anything I expected, and refreshingly unique.

Ground control to Major Bob
Photo - Jamie-James Medina
Albarn’s production and musical contributions to the album are sensitive and intelligent. Again, I’m not entirely certain as to he extent of his influence on the sound of this album, but the marriage of Womack’s ageless voice and the bittersweet music contained herein is simply stunning when it works. Stupid, a biting attack on religious leaders who exploit and degrade instead of teach love, acceptance and dedication, offers us the most pure example of such a joining. Womack’s vocal inflections and delivery indicate a sense of deep disappointment and remorse rather than hatred; saddened by the lives affected by these false teachers, and knowing there’s a better way. Accompanying these vocals is a sprightly but mournful piano part and a rigid, relentless drumbeat, indicating the perpetuity of this situation and tacitly suggesting that the situation won’t change if we keep things the way they are. (which they won’t) Other splendid examples include the title track, opening with solemn strings over Womack’s lone voice before erupting into a trippy, echoey ballad, and Whatever Happened to the Times, driven onwards by another passionate vocal by Womack and a beatless, overwhelming tapestry of organ and throbbing synth just simmering in the background. New ground is broken for both Womack and Albarn in the positive, reggae-influenced Love is Gonna Lift You Up, and echoes of the past appear on the short, solo rendition of the traditional piece Deep River. All things considered, The Bravest Man In The Universe is a widely encompassing piece of music with a great deal to say. Its atmosphere isn’t one of resignation or acceptance, but hope, joy and a sense that although we all have problems or limitations, life is too beautiful allow them to overcome us. Its message is sensitive, subtle and desperately needed in today’s musical atmosphere. Bobby Womack, with his insightful honesty and worldly wisdom, might just be the bravest man in the universe for bringing this message to us.

Words - Adam

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