Tried-and-true soul feels oddly fresh these days. With Lee Fields and Charles Bradley leading the charge, a genre born half a century ago has been resurrected to sound just as vital as its younger peers. Bobby Womack’s first proper record since 1999 is even more surprising, then, as it sees him become the only member of soul’s old guard to fully embrace the clutter of present-day pop. While Womack’s weathered pipes remain a force of nature, the help he’s enlisted — Damon Albarn of Blur/Gorillaz and XL owner Richard Russell — to complement them actually leaves such far-reaching imprints that he can’t dig himself out of the pitfalls.
On ‘If There Wasn’t Something There’, Womack is eaten alive by a persistent beat. “If there wasn’t something there, you’d have just walked away,” he intimates, and he’s right. That voice is phenomenal — grizzled and grey, albeit no less gargantuan. However, unlike on Womack’s classics from the early 70s such as Communication and Understanding, here, he’s bullied by the songs.
‘Dayglo Reflection’ unfurls as a spacious cut, spidery percussion magnifying the main theme: “Waiting for the day to bring me light.” We’re right there too, yet it never arrives, instead ceding to a gloomy, underwater cameo by Lana Del Rey. Proceedings that would benefit from a surge sink lower and lower into the abyss.
Sitting in precisely the opposite camp, the album’s crown jewel is ‘Deep River’. An acoustic number of stunning purity, it affords every single nuance in Womack’s pipes to breathe, finally drawing us in after trying to bust out for much of this journey. Among the other bright spots on hand, ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ distinguishes itself with an impeccable vocal that nearly breaks while bending in the most human, harrowing fashion. ‘Stupid’ huffs and puffs alongside Womack’s fervent phrasing whereas ‘Nothin’ Can Save Ya’ twists into a cavernous infinity, its studio wizardry shining without preventing the voices from carrying their tune.
Any semblance of warmth is petrified toward the record’s tail end, as ‘Love Is Gonna Lift You Up’ and ‘Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)’ churn out busybodied robot-pop. Frigid, foul stuff.
That’s the story, really. Womack’s trying to get with the times, but he ends up surrendering to them.