Produced by former Gorillaz and Blur frontman Damon Albarn as well as XL Recordings founder Richard Russell, on Womack’s first album of new material since 1994’s Resurrection, to say he sounds reinvigorated would be an understatement. Albarn, and Russell’s careful but not overly cautious production work helps Womack stand front-and-center over trip-hoppy beats and beatific synths. Womack cries out on “Sweet Baby Mine” like a man reborn. The title track, meanwhile, begins elegiac, as Womack extols the virtue of forgiveness, before breaking into a steady, string-laden groove that lets Womack do his thing with minimal distraction. A duet with Lana del Rey, “Dayglo Reflection,” is a bit of young-meets-old fun, but it’s still classy, with del Rey’s sultry voice breaks nicely complementing Womack’s rough hues. The headturner here, though, is closer “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around).” Womack is on fire as he sings in terrifying ecstasy over a big, nasty synth groove. The album is an excellent restatement from one of rock’s great survivors, and gives Womack a brilliant new palette from which to paint.
Womack has a healthy discography of great material in addition to Bravest Man. Born and raised in Cleveland to a Baptist church family, where his father was both a minister and a musician, Womack began his career with the family band The Womack Brothers. After Sam Cooke discovered the band, signing them to his SAR Records, where they recorded gospel music before switching to secular soul and changing their name to The Valentinos. Womack co-wrote their 1964 hit, “It’s All Over Now,” which went on to be a No.1 hit as covered by The Rolling Stones. After Sam Cooke was shot and killed in December of 1964, The Valentinos broke up and Womack began his solo career.
He worked as a guitarist, playing for Aretha Franklin, and as a songwriter before releasing his frist solo record and one of his best, in 1968, with Fly Me to the Moon. Womack’s beautiful guitarwork matches powerful, gospel-tinged vocals across a psych-soul landscape. Songs like “Baby! You Oughta Think It Over” are emblematic of their time, but also sound like little else, due to Womack’s unique combination of talents. A meditative cover of The Mamas & The Papas' “California Dreamin’” was a hit.
Later, in the early ’70s a pair of electric soul records, Communication and Understanding, cemented Womack’s place as an inimitable artist who could combine elements of gospel, soul, funk and rock — Understanding features a beautiful cover of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and the countrified soul of “Harry Hippie.” 1973’ The Facts of Life featured bold covers — namely “Natural Man,” his take on “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” and a buoyant and acidic “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out” — plus his trademark sermon-like delivery of lessons on life, love and faith, on songs like “If You Can’t Give Her Love, Give Her Up.” Also in the early ’70s, Womack recorded the soundtrack to blaxploitation film Across 110th Street, the title track of which also was used in the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. And the AM Gold of Lookin’ For a Love Again’s “Lookin’ for a Love,” a re-recording of a Valentinos song, provided Womack with his biggest hit yet.
The latter half of Womack’s career was more troubled, as was his personal life, facing addiction and most recently colon cancer. The ’80s saw a pair of albums, the lite jazzy soul of The Poet and the more standards-y The Poet II, with contrubtions from Patti LaBelle, but his career had mostly been quiet over the past couple of decades. Now cancer-free, following a successful surgery, Womack’s return with The Bravest Man in the Universe is one of the more remarkable tales of survival and resurgence in pop history. Check out some of Womack’s albums Amoeba has to offer.
Best of the Last Soul Man
Fly Me to the Moon/My Prescription
The Poet I & II