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

4.00

Bobby dazzles as he returns to his gospel roots

As one of the great individual stylists of Seventies soul music, Bobby Womack has been unaccountably silent for too many decades now.

Once, his sermonising style anatomising the knots and pitfalls of relationships offered a thoughtful counterpoint to the more physical leanings of the funk era; but its reflective nature long since slipped out of favour with black music's increasingly functional dancefloor priorities. So kudos to XL's Richard Russell for reprising the refurbishment process he applied to Gil Scott-Heron, and for finding the right collaborator in Damon Albarn.

Eschewing the psychedelic-funk arrangements of Womack's heyday, Russell and Albarn have opted for sparse electro grooves, the better to focus attention squarely on the singer's sepia timbre. The title-track opens proceedings with that voice naked save for a sombre cello, Womack opining that "the bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first", a customary slice of gospel wisdom, before a skeletal electro pattern kicks in, shaded by hints of piano, acoustic guitar and strings. The formula continues for "Please Forgive My Heart", where spare piano chords and stuttery synth beats accompany his evocative plaint that "it feels like the sky is falling, and the clouds are closing in".

The same few elements are juggled variously throughout the album, with variety provided by Lana Del Ray and Fatoumata Diawara duetting on "Dayglo Reflection" and "Nothin' Can Save Ya" respectively. His lyrical themes remain constant: hope and shame, guilt and faith. And always audible are his roots in gospel. On "Love Is Gonna Lift You Up", you can all but hear the swaying choir absent from the chorus, while the concluding "Jubilee" harnesses the spiritual standard "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Round" to a pounding electro pulse – over which Bobby finally gets to do a little of his old-school sermonising. It's been a long time coming, and all the more welcome for it.

Download: The Bravest Man in the Universe; Please Forgive My Heart; Whatever Happened to the Times; Jubilee

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