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

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For his latest comeback—and first album of new material in 18 years—this R&B titan of the 1960s and '70s went to England. The album was co-produced by Damon Albarn (of Gorillaz and Blur fame) and XL Records honcho Richard Russell.

After more than 50 years in the music business, and coping on and off with tragedy and addiction, Womack lends his inimitable voice to some thrilling, challenging songs in a neo-soul style. The singer shares writing credit with Albarn and Russell on most tracks, and the collaboration produces an edgy blend of modern and traditional elements.

Past and present collide, resulting in melancholy and nostalgia. Controversial chanteuse of the moment Lana Del Rey adds gauzy vocals to the haunting "Dayglo Reflection," an adaptation of a tune originally written by Sam Cooke. Sparse electronics accompany the wistful "Whatever Happened to the Times." Less than two minutes long, the traditional "Deep River" allows Womack to call on his gospel roots, accompanied only by strummed guitar. Later, though, he takes avaricious preachers to task on "Stupid."

The lyrics often refer to trial and redemption. The first lines of the title track present something of a manifesto: "The bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first." Deep dub bass and the snap of digital rhythm don't detract from this tale of being lost and found, but instead bring a contemporary edginess to it. Womack's still-rich voice seems to rise from the stark arrangements, as if it were emerging into the light from a dark well.

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