A short half-hour doodle of regrets and recollections, Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here made an impact that spread far. We’re New Here, a Scott-Heron-approved remix album by baby-faced post-dubstepper Jamie XX won as many plaudits as the original album; XX’s reworking of ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ was turned into a charting hit by Drake, with a little help from Rihanna; and most notably, a nod to Kanye West on the album, acknowledging the star’s own sampling of ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’, was returned when West allowed an extended sample of ‘Comment No.1’ to preside over the close of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Already a potently elegiac album before his death in 2011, for a good twelve months the ghost of Gil Scott-Heron haunted the charts, his influence finally recognised.
Pulling the strings behind what would be Scott-Heron’s last album was XL Recording’s head honcho Richard Russell and, along with a little help from a certain Damon Albarn, The Bravest Man in the Universe sees him attempting a similar thing for soul legend Bobby Womack. Ghosts and death-bed-style confessions haunt the album. On ‘Dayglo Reflection’ a static-y recording of Sam Cooke talking about ageing and understanding gets bracketed by another ’60s spectre of sorts: Lana Del Ray. And as Heron sang blues standards to lend I’m New Here a sense of deep spiritual yearning, Womack offers a reinterpretation of the African American spiritual ‘Deep River’ featuring just his earthy vocal and a busted up acoustic guitar accompaniment. Elsewhere Womack’s own voice gets cut-up and glitched like a ghost in the machine.
For half the album the effect is suitable enough if – eighteen years on from Johnny Cash’s first American Recordings - now over-familiar. But then the voice of Gil Scott-Heron himself appears and seems to spook the album off course, beginning a second half of tracks that run from unremarkable to just plain bad. Particularly ill-advised and tone-breaking are ‘Love Is Gonna Lift You Up’ and ‘Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)’; the former aiming for something ecclesiastically hopeful about the redemptive power of love, something Womack’s warm, earthy croon should be – used to be – ideally suited to, but instead sounding unforgivably, bizarrely banal and trite.
Like Plastic Beach – the 2010 Gorillaz release that Womack guested on – much of The Bravest Man… has a consciously reclaimed and inorganic feel to it, as if to say: if we’re recycling legends – mind the vat holding Shaun Ryder’s head – it makes sense to make eco-friendly music. Where sombre strings and skeletal piano aren’t stretching to create a suitably greyscale and elegiac mood, the album is dominated with the kind of minimal, looped and melancholy sounds that bring to mind the trip-hop of Massive Attack. On ‘Please Forgive My Heart’, the album’s first single and clear standout, an outré-sounding bass balloons around a squeaky, skittish beat, while Womack’s own sub-vocal murmurs get looped on top into their own rhythm. ‘Wasn’t Something There’ pulls off something similar with a more grinding bassline and a hip-hop drum loop.
Though the album’s at its strongest when it’s playing it safe with that melancholic mood, it’s a set-up that never completely complements his talents. Four minutes into ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ the track melts away and Womack gives out a charged cry, a little wordless vamp that he’s rarely afforded elsewhere amongst the crowded clutter of the album. For Heron the foggy, click-clack production served as a post-millennial update on the bongos and handclaps that accompanied his political tracts and spoken-word poetry. For a stronger, more visceral voice like Womack’s, a voice with the rare ability to affect wounded vulnerability no matter how full-throated, the lack of space feels constricting. The album is basic, stripped down, but it doesn’t ever feel like a return to foundations, and when soul-revivalists like Thundercat, and Erykah Badu, and cyber-funk wierdos like Flying Lotus are out there making twenty first century re-workings of the extended workouts and jams Womack used to reign over, you wonder if Albarn and Russell’s good intentions necessarily made them the right guys for the job.