Here’s another survivor who has racked up 50 years making music. Womack’s career dates back to the 1950s when he was discovered by Sam Cooke singing gospel with his brothers. His achievements over the years include songwriting (It’s All Over Now – The Rolling Stones), guitar playing (Aretha Franklin, Sly & The Family Stone) and his own solo work in the 1970s and 80s (Woman’s Gotta Have It, Harry Hippie). Now, after years battling drugs and alcohol, Womack is back.
Younger music fans might recognize Womack’s name from Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project. Bobby collaborated on Stylo, from Plastic Beach, with Mos Def. This new album continues the relationship between Womack and Albarn…Damon co-produced and co-wrote the record along with Richard Russell and Womack. Like the similarly resurrected Gil Scott-Heron, Womack’s new album has been released on Russell’s XL label. In fact, the late Scott-Heron makes a brief posthumous cameo on one track.
Although Womack has been out of circulation for some time his voice remains intact. In fact, the album opens with Bobby belting out the title sounding like James Brown in his prime. But for those who may be expecting a vintage-sounding soul album, they will be in for a surprise.
Rather than the traditional guitars, bass, drums and horns, the music is built around looped beats, samples and a string section. Womack and his co-producers could have taken the easy road and given his long-time fans a re-hash of his glory days in the 1970s. Instead, they have placed Womack’s soulful voice over a musical bed that will thrill some fans, but annoy others.
Dayglo Reflection is a case in point. The track features a sample from a vintage Sam Cooke interview and features some lovely piano playing. Womack’s vocal is heartfelt and guest vocalist Lana Del Rey sounds absolutely angelic. But the busy electronic percussion that erupts during the track has a tendency to distract, rather than enhance the vocals. It’s a shame, because the song feature’s the album’s strongest melody, but after awhile I’ll I could think was, “Please stop that damn loop!”.
That’s probably the most intrusive the production gets. On a track like Stupid, which finds Womack railing against tele-evangelists, the voice/piano/loop combo is much more effective.
No surprisingly, given Bobby’s roots, there is a strong gospel feel throughout the album. The title track quotes Amazing Grace and the album finishes with Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around), a fine gospel tune with Womack turning in another strong performance.
So, kudos to Womack, Albarn and Russell for resisting the urge to recreate the past, pacify less adventurous fans and trying something new. The approach works better in some places than others, but overall it makes Womack’s music sound vital and contemporary, rather than like a museum piece. He may not be the bravest man in the universe, but at age 68, he’s still willing to takes some chances.
Click here to listen to If There Wasn’t Something There from The Bravest Man In The Universe: