The man has been making music for literally half a century, beginning in 1954 with his run as a prepubescent member of Curtis Womack & the Womack Brothers and culminating with a 2009 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
Along the way he played guitar for Aretha Franklin, collaborated with Sly & the Family Stone, penned ballads for Janis Joplin, and still found time to pump out twenty-six studio albums and a slew of chart-topping singles all under his own name.
To say that an artist of Womack’s stature is in need of one last career-affirming record is to entirely miss the point altogether, but that is exactly what Womack himself has managed to do – miss the point, albeit fantastically – with the release of this year’s ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe‘, a remarkably powerful collection of songs that somehow celebrates his storied past by simultaneously pushing himself further from it.
This forward-thinking approach is largely a credit to the major-player production team of ubiquitous everyman Damon Albarn and XL Recordings boss Richard Russell. Rather than attempt to rehash the snap-back funk and horn-section sheen of his ‘Communication‘-era breakthrough, Albarn and Russell instead opt for an eerie electronic minimalism that successfully frames Womack’s larger-than-life personality within a present day context. The final product is a series of subtle grooves and moody atmospherics that provide a heady contrast to the gruff, world-weary vocal styling of a sixty-eight year-old man who sounds as if maybe he really has seen it all.
Russell has been in this territory before, having engineered a similar latter-day reinvention of the equally enigmatic Gil Scott-Heron on 2010’s ‘I’m New Here‘, put out just a year before the famed jazz poet passed. Like Scott-Heron, Womack was once a prodigious talent whose prolificacy was derailed by drug addiction, failed relationships, debilitating illness, and prolonged bouts of inactivity. So it’s hard not to feel all the details behind his unique brand of hardship; the bizarre shooting of his mentor Sam Cooke, the expedited marriage and subsequent divorce to Cooke’s widow, the sudden suicide of one son and the infantile death of another, an oncoming collision with multiple forms of cancer – you can hear every inch as if it was all engraved on the inside of his throat.
As a result, the best songs here are the ones that really hone in on that profound sense of loss and acceptance of regret that can only come with age. The title track has Womack proclaiming that “the bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first” over a spare, string-laden beat, while ‘Please Forgive My Heart‘ is an aching portrait of how difficult it can be to ask for immediate absolution from mistakes it took years for you to even acknowledge yourself.
This modern appropriation of Womack’s wounded wisdom is undoubtedly what drives the record, even if it doesn’t always steer it in the right direction. The downtempo orchestration of ‘If There Wasn’t Something There‘ is beautiful and unsettling, yet the tinny Casio dance skip of ‘Love Is Gonna Lift You Up‘ feels awkward and almost out of place.
Albarn regular Fatoumata Diawara’s ghostly croon seamlessly merges with his heartfelt pleas on ‘Nothin’ Can Save Ya‘, but Internet buzz-queen Lana Del Rey struggles to settle in against the turning of the page assessment that defines ‘Dayglo Reflection‘.
Above all else, it is the commanding presence of Womack’s earthy, weather-beaten baritone that still lifts each arrangement into something special, whether it is the mournful lament of ‘Whatever Happened To The Time‘ or the uplifting heaves of mortality that tremble across an acoustic version of the gospel standard ‘Deep River‘.
It is that voice that has carried him through decades of uncertainty to this current point of deep reflection, and it that very same voice, now stark and unapologetic with experience, that will continue to carry his legacy long after he himself is gone.