Where you land on Bobby Womack’s first proper album of new songs in 18 years depends partly on where you started out with him, and partly on how far you’re willing to go from there. Anyone coming to The Bravest Man in the Universe expecting some sort of neo-soul rehash of Womack’s classic ’70s sound should just go listen to a John Legend record instead. Even if your Womack of choice is the comparatively sleek ’80s incarnation, you’re still bound to be a good distance from what happens here.
Womack is clearly not interested in trading on his legendary past or playing it safe. His recording career was waylaid for years by drug issues and now that he’s got the opportunity to revitalize it, the 68-year-old R&B icon isn’t about to squander it on an album full of retreads. Instead he’s pushing bravely towards the future — or at least the present — with the help of producers Damon Albarn and XL label boss Richard Russell. The arrangements on Bravest Man are not a million miles away from what Russell did with Gil Scott-Heron for the latter’s 2010 swan song, I’m New Here; samples, synths, and electronic grooves abound, instead of the more organic, ’70s-flavored sounds one might have otherwise expected. The exception is the acoustic-guitar-and-vocal setting of the gospel-tinged “Deep River,” but otherwise, Womack’s deliciously deep-fried vocals are surrounded by a world of electronic-based sounds that cast his charisma-laden pipes in stark relief. How much he needed Lana Del Rey to add her somnambulent touch to “Dayglo Reflection” is questionable, but barring any idiomatic prejudices against the contemporary production techniques, there are no glaring missteps here — after setting up the framework for the tracks, Russell and Albarn basically let Womack be Womack, and when you’re in a recording studio, that’s always a good idea.