Ghosts speak between the beats on The Bravest Man in the Universe, but Bobby Womack is not one of them. His voice — a vehicle for some of soul music’s most memorable midnight pleas and morning cock crows — could never pass for dead, even if it’s now scuff-marked. That scrappy instrument galvanizes this collaboration with Britpop polymath Damon Albarn and XL Records owner-producer Richard Russell, making what could have been a beautiful mummification into an assertion of intelligence and power, full of blood, sweat and salty vinegar. Whether dropping to creaky knees in a love man’s classic stance, getting philosophical on a bar stool like Frank Sinatra, or chasing the gospel train to modern-day Africa, Womack defines this project, his stance summed up by the crowning phrase of the album’s final track, “Jubilee”: “Don’t let anybody turn you ’round!”
The atmospheres shaped by Albarn’s keyboards and Russell’s beats and samples sound nothing like traditional R&B (whatever that is), yet there’s no doubt that they serve Womack’s own sensibility. It may seem unnecessary to state that he’s front and center on an album bearing his name, but when an elder works with younger admirers whose approach was formed within a different aesthetic, a kind of erasure can occur. Great artists, either dressed up in period outfits that no longer fit or lost within new settings that obscure their gifts, can be rendered mute. It’s reasonable to fear that this could happen to Womack. Why couldn’t he just make another great R&B album, as he’s been doing since 1968? Yet to assume that The Bravest Man in the Universe is less genuinely his because it’s redolent of trip-hop and ambient electronica is to discount the truly curious spirit of a man who deserves the overused assignation of “maverick.”
This isn’t the first time Womack has found a new self by partnering with British acolytes, nor was his pairing with Albarn in the Gorillaz track “Stylo” a real surprise. In the 1970s, Womack toured with The Faces, contemplated making a Sam Cooke tribute album with Rod Stewart, and even co-produced Ron Wood’s second solo album. He’s always covered rock songs, melding the intense engagement he learned as a gospel youth with more singer-songwriterly ways of unveiling the human psyche. From his youth as a Cooke protégé to his brilliant 1980s duets with Patti LaBelle, Womack has proven himself to be one of pop’s most open free spirits, always ready for a new perspective.