Sep 12, 2014
Bobby Womack Was America
It’s not enough to say that “Across 110th Street” is classic, or that Bobby Womack was a great soul singer. He sang like a preacher who yelled himself hoarse but kept yelling. He counted Otis Redding as a peer. He was one of the best singers in the world, from a tradition that’s gone now.
None of his successes would have happened without the gospel circuit of the 50s. It gave him the emotional contrasts that turn great singers into monumental ones: he inhabited heaven and hell and the yearning in between. He could convey exultation and mourning at the same time.
It’s all there in his cover of “California Dreamin’,” one of those covers so good you don’t want to call it one, where the stakes are ratcheted up a million times and rocketed into space. It should be mentioned in a footnote every time somebody trots out that line about Trent Reznor saying he doesn’t own “Hurt” anymore. It’s awesome in the Biblical sense. It sounds like he recorded it incidentally while breaking the sound barrier on a motorcycle. It takes you to emotional places you can’t otherwise access without a death wish: at his best, Bobby Womack captures what you imagine skydiving feels like. Soaring, unpredictable, visceral.
He beat the odds by living to 70. Seventy years as a soul singer is two hundred years for a normal person. Otis Redding was 26 when his plane crashed. Sam Cooke was 33 when he got killed. Bobby Womack lived so long that there was no road map. What would Otis have done in the late 80s? Probably the same depressing adult-contemporary stuff Bobby Womack wound up doing. Probably the same obligatory Christmas album too, complete with artwork worthy of the furniture section of a Sears catalog. When you’re one of the best singers in the world, you eventually wind up with two options: check out early or suffer some serious indignities as the music industry forgets what’s magical about you. (Here Bill Withers deserves commendation for being a genius: he got out for good in 1985.)
So the last four years of his career were bizarre to see. Watching him up on stage with the Gorillaz was the definition of cognitive dissonance. It was not a band he had any frame of reference for whatsoever. And why would he? What was he doing on a stage with the guy from Blur? It seemed condescending of Albarn to bestow Bobby Womack, one of the best singers in the world, with the charity of a touring slot in a band known primarily as a cartoon. If Bobby Womack could only be introduced to a new generation as one of a small army of stunt casted walk-ons in Damon Albarn’s variety show, maybe it wasn’t worth doing?
But kneejerk apprehension is too easy in situations like this, and besides, the Albarn association worked. Womack was a highlight of the Gorillaz gigs because his voice never stopped being magical – even at the end, he still had the thunder. And the swan song that sprang from that tour, The Bravest Man in the Universe, was way better than it had any right to be.
The album’s co-producer, Richard Russell, had already tried this sort of thing once, with Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, which was a tough album to embrace. It was positioned as the comeback of an icon who fell through the cracks, as all late-stage comebacks are, but in retrospect it feels exploitative. It feels like a Richard Russell album (ft. Gil Scott-Heron), the salvageable remnants of ramshackle sessions with a barely-there drug addict at the end of his life. It was only 28 minutes long and contained one new song. It was great, but with four years hindsight, it feels like Richard Russell programming some cool beats underneath a man dying in front of his eyes, and it’s hard to divorce it from that baggage.
The Bravest Man in the Universe lost some potency because it came out so soon after the Gil Scott-Heron hit. “Oh, I wonder what other soul singer in poor health will be next. What’s Lester Chambers doing? Why isn’t there a town car in front of Sly Stone’s RV?” But I’d suggest it’s a better album, and will age better, because it isn’t as beleaguered by questions of exploitation.
That’s because it feels like a 2012 Bobby Womack album. It’s not a Damon Albarn album or a Richard Russell album. Every song is unmistakably dominated by Womack, and the post-Massive Attack instrumentation can’t get in the way of that. The key difference between it and I’m New Here is it’s Bobby Womack’s writing, and it’s Bobby Womack’s vocal melodies. He takes ownership of the project in a way Gil Scott-Heron didn’t. Albarn and Russell’s involvement feels more earnestly collaborative: it’s not a crossover project; it’s more like a concept album. It’s Bobby Womack floating through space, the cosmic soul singer circling us in low earth orbit.
Also refreshing is that the album is not hung up on mortality, which is a miracle. Where every Cash album with Rubin was positioned as the house music for an alt-rock funeral, here’s an album of brand new songs about the same things Bobby Womack always sang about: love, loss, regret. Morbidity is totally absent in favor of something more organic, convincing, and honest.
He was in such strong vocal form right up until the end that the album was never derailed by the dying legend narrative. Not even the biggest misstep –Lana Del Rey duet – was ruinous to the music. When Womack sings “I’m a liar, I’m in a dream,” and when he says “should I even have to mention I’m still here?” all concerns of Damon Albarn being in the same room vanish.
He had diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s, and still went on the road and played these songs. That’s faith in the project, and it comes across throughout. If anything, you wonder if Albarn and Russell held it back. Would the title track have worked better if it was 7 minutes long, with rambling spoken word asides and horn blasts? That’s how strong Womack’s ownership of the project is. It’s possible to imagine almost all these songs, albeit with a different backing band, as singles from The Poet. They can exist outside the comeback context.
The Bravest Man in the Universe transcends expectations. It’s not stark. It’s not bogged down by cameos from sycophants. If anybody other than Damon Albarn had been involved, Ronnie Wood would have played guitar on every track. As a last statement, it could have been a lot worse. What we got was the work of a man who knew he was dying, but sang with the feeling he always did, toured as much as his body allowed, and got to see the fruits of his labor extended beyond Rolling Stones royalty checks. Bobby Womack was a survivor and he went to work and proved it.
The Bravest Man in the Universe. Buy now.