Eighteen years on from his last recorded set of originals, the singer for whom the phrase ‘soul legend’ seems hopelessly inadequate returns, his power undiminished by either age (he’s 68) or serious illness (he’s currently recovering from both pneumonia and the removal of a non-cancerous tumour). Womack has battled both drug dependency and frequent bouts of ill health during his career, so it’s perhaps no surprise that in later years he’s relied on standards and covers to sustain him. But now XL boss Richard Russell has worked the rejuvenation magic he used on Gil Scott-Heron (who guests on Womack’s track ‘Stupid’) in 2010, and coaxed from the singer an expansive LP of deep contemporary soul.
Co-produced by Damon Albarn, The Bravest Man… pulls off two tricks: it acknowledges the singer’s iconic status without hanging a ‘classic’ sign around his neck; and it allows him his own space, while dotting around him understatedly funky pieces of sonic furniture. Forcing the timeless, round-peg Womack into a modernist square hole wouldn’t have worked. Instead, a traditional guitar-and-voice gospel-blues track like ‘Deep River’ is sandwiched between the dubstep-toned ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ and ‘Dayglo Reflection’, where Lana Del Rey’s forlorn melodies are underpinned by broken beats.
Elsewhere, there’s a nod to grime (‘Love Is Gonna Lift You Up’) and gospel-tech, as in ‘Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)’. Less radical but no less alluring is the title track’s dark orchestral hip hop, and the rebooted trip hop of ‘Nothin’ Can Save Ya’. Womack’s voice is the constant: strong and gruffly sweet, defiant, true and as richly grained as life itself. Sharon O’Connell