Seriously, you should read the biography that comes with a Bobby Womack record. It’s two pages front and back and goes through one of the most ridiculously amazing life histories that most modern pop scholars would only know a third of if they were lucky. Womack, who is the older brother of that other Womack of Womack & Womack (stay with me here), wrote or appeared on almost every R&B hit in history. The Rolling Stones broke out because of him in 1964. But if you’re like me, the first you knowingly heard of Bobby Womack was when Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz suddenly released this weird-as electronic pop song called ‘Stylo‘ that had this amazing, hysterical ancient man wailing all over it. It was Albarn, a ruthless notetaker of popular music and complete and utter mad genius when it comes to collaborators, who first picked up on the idea of featuring a soulful sexagenarian on a record for the kids. He took Womack on tour after Plastic Beach and generally got the guy, who many believed had his best years nearly two decades behind him, back out into the open. And that’s when shit really got interesting.
Richard Russell is a man of unprecedented action. If you haven’t read the stellar profile of the XL Recordings boss on The Guardian, I highly recommend it. Throughout the life of his revolutionary label – home to everyone from The Prodigy through to Basement Jaxx, Dizzee Rascal, The White Strpes and The xx – Russell has always acted on his gut rather than commercial imperative. That the two manage to intertwine so frequently (hello Adele and Tyler, The Creator) is incredibly fortunate, and part of the reason I tried to hard to break my way into the offices when I was in London recently. Russell is, according to that manifesto of a press release, a longtime Womack fan, and I don’t doubt it. He’s responsible for the skittery, post-dub drums and minimalist soundscapes that are all over Womack’s newest record, which is put out through his label. If it sounds familiar, that’s because Russell was also behind the decks when Gil Scot-Herron met Jamie xx. Turns out he’s really, really good with getting blood out of wizened stones.
‘Dayglo Reflection’ is one of the centrepeices of the Bravest Man In the Universe, which succeeds not only because Russell is an undoubtedly brilliant producer but because he’s also really good at putting the right peple (like Albarn, Womack and, on this tune, Del Rey) together in the appropriate configuration. Making someone of Womack’s stature sound vital at this point in the game is as much about space as it is about aesthetics; there’s never an overflow of instrumentation and the tracks are all designed to let that phenomenally contoured and soulful croon take centre stage. With a bucking and whining syncopated V-drum line that feels like a hangover from an early Madchester track set under rolling grand piano, Russell and Albarn establish the drama before it even enters the room. Add that to a sample of Sam Cooke talking, who’s wife Bobby married only three months after he died, and it’s all happening. Womack enters first, mirroring the chord progression with well-measured pathos before Del Rey waltzes in with her 1950s film stylings and provides a smooth counterpoint of texture in the chorus. Perhaps for the first time since she burst onto the scene, she shows some real versatility, worthy of sharing the studio with Womack. In fact, he sits back and apart from a few brief interludes, basically hands the rest of the song to her. There are points when she hits her upper register where she sounds rough for the first time in her career, which lends itself to the idea that it might actually be Womack in falsetto subbing in. But that’s the true romance of this song, it seems to envelop itself in a smoky blur of the soulful past and the self-destructive present, and it makes for unbelievably engaging listening.
Bobby Womack ft. Lana Del Ray – ‘Dayglo Reflection’