Experience is nothing to the passive observer such as ourselves without a decent medium to interact with, to learn from it. When Gil Scott-Heron released I’m New Here, old and new heads alike wondered aloud ‘where the hell has he been for the last 20 years?!’. Well he spent some time in jail, and spent a lot of time living a hard and difficult life battling demons that we can only dream of. A similar line can be drawn under the recent life of Womack. A man that seemingly never grew out of his addictions as some of his contemporaries did, but who also didn’t die like the majority of his contemporaries.
And so he delivers his possible swan song. Let us hope that he doesn’t travel down the same path as the legendary Gil Scott-Heron who crafted the perfect album in 2010 only to lose his life a year later. Because this album is good, but it isn’t brilliant, and it isn’t Womacks fault. His vocal performance on this record is only limited by the production. When he needs to be pitch perfect he is, when he needs to put a break in his voice he does, when the producer asks him to dial in some emotion he backs a 10 ton truck of it up and dumps it everywhere. The closest album I can think to this in recent times was the awesome Solomon Burke album Don’t Give Up On Me. Two singers very much alike in background and vocal ability, but two very different production teams.
Nuts and bolts. The album opens with the brilliant The Bravest Man In The Universe, and sees Bobby singing not about himself, but it feels more like the man he wishes he was. Rather than a retrospective desire it feels like he’s wanted redemption for more than just the past 5 minutes, he’s sought it for many decades. “The bravest man in the Universe/Is the one who has forgiven first/Yeah/Shame on me, shame on you/It’s up to us/What we say and what we do”
It’s a theme that is hammered home for the rest of the album. He’s lived a sinful existance in the eyes of the holy, in his own eyes. “I could try to say I’m sorry/ But that won’t be quite enough/ To let you know the pain that I feel/ And it just won’t let up” he pleads on Please Forgive My Heart. But you can’t write an entire album in apology. On Stupid, Womack perplexingly takes a swipe at his religion, questioning the motives of the preacher, explaining how his interactions with them have been a negative influence on his state of mind. This point is further rammed home with the interlude that Gil Scott-Heron appears on, being critical of the money-focus of some within the church.
Elsewhere, we see an ill-advised collaboration with the increasingly one-dimensional Lana Del Ray. It sounds like a bit of a masterclass from Albarn and co, but Del Ray just sounds asleep and out of place next to the husky soul growl of Womack. Deep River actually made me think of the stunning On The Cloud Of Unknowing off Plastic Beach. His voice is at its purest on the album, but possibly because of the stripped back production, with just an acoustic guitar the emotion can be expressed in its full glory.
So the production.. Damon Albarn and Richard Russell man the electronics for this release, and it feels like that’s all they did, man the electronics. My biggest problem is the drums. Everytime they appear on the album, which is a lot, they just feel sterile, like drum machine production on a Dr Dre album. They give each track a rhythm that seems to detract from the natural rhythm that Bobby Womacks voice inherently has. Deep River is a perfect example of this, with just an acoustic guitar he creates a song in much the same way Johnny Cash could do, he is a soul master so as always the rhythm is in the voice. I can’t even help but think that Womack would’ve been more at home singing over the top of Dr Dee, Albarns last album. It’s a pity because it could’ve been something epic this album with the right production team, I’m as surprised as most that Albarn missed the mark because he is usually a genius behind the boards.
So a solid effort, a good effort considering the difficult task faced by all to make this record come together. Womack, hopefully, will be back again, because we don’t want this to be the last of him. 6/10