Damon Albarn and Richard Russell have done – trying to find the right words – (maybe it’s) an admirable job on the new Bobby Womack album. And given that he’s not made a new record for a decade or more, I’m both thrilled and grateful that someone has.
It’s a record that won’t seem uncomfortable to anyone that liked the last (and final) Gil Scott-Heron album a couple of years back – as I did. Russell seems to have hit a working formula at XL – take an ailing legacy legend who’s best years are deemed behind him by the criterati, add modern audio embellishments and – bing – you have a career reviver with instant critical momentum.
The formula isn’t that new – Rick Rubin has been doing career refurbishments for years, albeit more by stripping back than adding, with mixed results from Johnny Cash (fantastic) to Neil Diamond (not quite so fabulous: Diamond has been a notoriously immovable stoner for years – ask anyone in his record company – who seemed to mostly loose his grip around 1973 when he began writing albums about seagulls, and then troughed a couple of years later whilst dueting with Babs Streisand, always a career low for anyone).
So to Bobby. I like it. As an album it’s mostly pleasant – nice (the word my English teacher told me never to put to paper) even. Loads of critics really like it – and some have even given it 5 stars (maybe the same writers who gave the mid 2000s Dylan albums 5 stars each too, which begged the obvious question then: if those get five, where does that leave Blonde on Blonde?). Given his previous work 5 stars here is also a mighty claim. As are even four.
The first single is great:
It’s a neat, soul-tugging, almost faultless song that Bobby offers up to us wrapped in his absolutely unique vocal style and phasing. However, the depth and strength of the performance therein seems to have stripped him of his creative mojo (I have no idea what order these were recorded in btw), and with one exception thereafter, the rest of the longplayer mostly doesn’t really equal it or come close.
A man – the guy who wrote It’s All Over Now which gave The Rolling Stones a US career break – who’s known as much for his compositional skills as for his delivery to these songs (and his interpretations of other’s songs) seems to be finding these talents mostly MIA on the evidence on this disc – or perhaps the claustrophobic production has simply sucked the breath from what were always best heard when they offered up with the kind of spacial arrangements that accentuated the passion and drama, both subtle and extreme, that came with a Bobby Womack record.
The exception is the third track, which happily flows after the single, the traditional Deep River – timeless, seemingly effortless, Bobby that would sit easily on any of his 1970s classic albums. Sadly that is followed immediately by the clumsy, awkward & wooden DayGlo River, a rather pointless and somewhat desperate duet with Lana Del Rey.
This is a man who’s celebrated duets include Patti LaBelle, Sly Stone and Candi Staton. Lana Del Rey? I don’t mind her voice but she’s better suited to a few minutes with Elton John or Bono.
Whilst the vocal performances are credible, mostly they tend to be swamped by Albarn and Russell’s now quickly cliched post-modern production. Essentially it’s an album for people who’ve never bought Womack before – being their introduced by The Gorillaz, or by the XL hype – and would hate The Poet I & The Poet II if chance forced them into a room with it.
The Washington Post nails it well:
Womack does his best. His pipes are far from their peak, but he sings with an enthusiasm that still manages to jump off the speakers. “Please Forgive My Heart” finds him processing a guilt that refuses to loosen its grip. Over pulsing synthesizers and stuttering drum machines, he pleads, “Where did I lose control?”
Unfortunately, the remaining nine tracks are more admirable than enjoyable. For an album like this to work, the songs need to be as commanding as the guy who’s singing them, and Womack’s stewards don’t come through with the hooks. Womack has said “The Bravest Man in the Universe” is the best album he’s ever released. As a songwriter, Albarn can’t say the same.
I’d have been happier to have had Please Forgive My Heart on its own and be done with it – would be a fine postscript to a monumental 60 year career. The Bravest Man On Earth is not a bad record – it’s an okay collection that could – maybe – have been a little better if the producers hadn’t tried so bloody hard to make it so relevant.
It’s simply not as special as it could have been.
That said, I suspect this will be Bobby’s most successful album ever – sales wise – and it’s impossible to begrudge him the financial comfort that will bring.
I’m inclined – to perhaps somehow compensate for the disappointment of The Bravest Man – to strap together a few Womack videos (some are just audio, but what audio..) or maybe simply to remind myself – why Robert Dwayne Womack was one of the 20th Century’s great treasures.
Firstly, arguably the greatest Blaxploitation theme ever (and the whole album is no slouch, although Bobby only contributes half of it), which defined two movies twenty five years apart. The opening sequence of the second of these, Jackie Brown, as here, is a strong contender for the finest opening few minutes in American cinema:
From the 1981 (hugely regarded) comeback album (his first comeback) The Poet:
His – the definitive – version of John Phillips much recorded California Dreaming, from 1968:
A great live Gypsy Woman (marred only by the ‘Gypsy Woman’):
A hit from a patchy mid 8os album (but great live here), I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much:
Harry Hippy, his very first gold record, written by longtime co-writer Jim Ford:
From 1983′s The Poet II (oh, man I love that album), the epic American Dream:
Also drawn from The Poet II, but performed here live with Patti Labelle:
From 1968, Fly Me To The Moon, the title track of his first solo album:
Six fantastic live minutes with The Crusaders:
The 1964 single that kick started The Rolling Stones (and made Bobby instantly – if briefly – wealthy):
From 2000, the wonderful and very rare 7″ only acoustic take of Get A Life with Rae & Christian (apologies for the quality but it’s all I could find):
And last, here’s Bobby talking about that tune, including the story of the stalker who provided the inspiration: