Bobby Womack: The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL)

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Bobby Womack: Please Forgive My Heart
Bobby Womack: The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL)

In addition to the trouble he inflicted on himself -- notably drugs, shot at by his wife when she discovered his affair with a step-daughter -- it seems life continues to deal hard blows to the great Bobby Womack.

He grew up in poverty and now in his late 60s, as this -- his first album of new material in 13 years -- is released, he has been treated for a growth on his colon and pneumonia. This after surgery for prostate cancer last year.

But, as he says in a snatch of spoken word, between songs here, as  a man grows older his perception goes deeper because he lives life and he understands what he is trying to say a little more.

And in these often aching songs -- emotional pleas for forgiveness and understanding on a personal and universal level -- Womack reaches for that deeper understanding. On Please Forgive My Heart he admits saying sorry isn't enough to ease the pain, Whatever Happened to the Times is a thoughtful but heroic look back at his hard times/"good times", and Deep River over simple acoustic guitar is almost a spiritual of the old style.

Almost, because the production here by Damon Albarn -- with whom Womack recently worked in Gorillaz -- is mostly techno-minimal and full of electrostatic beats, simple melodic phrases repeated, lonely piano and deliberate surface noise. None of this distracts from Womack's tough, cracked and pian-filled singing, in fact it throws it into even starker contrast and you can hear every choked note and overdub.

Weirdly, rather than making this sound like a studio affectation, it humanises Womack's sound even more.

And the lovely but brittle-beat treatment of Dayglo Reflection finds Womack's strained sandpaper vocals ("the Earth is but a day") and spoken word offset by the pure and ethereal tone of Lana Del Ray and strings. It doesn't make for an easy listen first time up, but rewards repeat plays as a disturbing dialogue between the secular and spiritual.

The late Gil Scott-Heron is beamed in for a distinctive sample before Womack takes to preachers stealing in the name of the Lord over switchblade sharp beats and a romantic piano. Again, the aural dichotomy of beauty and the beats adds extra resonance to a song of serious intent.

If you were taking odds you'd say this might be Womack's last album -- you'd never count him out though -- but if that's the case then he's looking his maker directly in the eye, connecting to another audience again despite his advanced years and going out on a high after so many lows.

The man can sing in If There Wasn't Something There, "I got some things that I could teach you, got something you don't know you want . . . I'm still here" and sound utterly convincing.

Only the Seventies-style synth part and obviousness of the lyrics and sentiment on Love is Gonna Lift You Up pulls this one back a notch.

But elsewhere the rewards and vicissitudes of his extraordinary life are pressed into these songs, and is impossible to be unmoved. Or dance to the block rockin' gospel-techno of the far too short Jubilee/Don't Let Nobody Turn You Round right at the end.

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