Last month, the world received some wonderful news: Bobby Womack, the legendary singer-songwriter whose music blazed vital trails through the histories of rock and R&B music, announced via his Facebook page that he’s cancer-free. Womack the human being sticking around much longer than feared when his colon-cancer diagnosis was made public in March is reason enough to celebrate. But the music world is doubly blessed to have Womack the artist still making records like The Bravest Man In The Universe, which comes out this week. Musically, Bravest Man is a commendable, even daring re-invention, setting Womack’s gritty vocals against glitchy, ghostly soundscapes that are as expressive, in their own way, as the earthier, gospel-inspired textures for which Womack is already known. Lyrically, however, the album is the sort of introspective, fatalistic, backward-looking confessional that’s become common for aging musicians. Womack, thankfully, is no longer dying, but The Bravest Man In The Universe is yet another “art of dying” album.
An “art of dying” album—whether made by Womack, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, or others addressing an all-too-pressing sense of mortality—is never subtle. A glance at the track listing for Bravest Man lays out the typical themes: “Please Forgive My Heart,” “Whatever Happened To The Times,” “Love Is Gonna Lift You Up,” “Nothin’ Can Save Ya.” Womack, like his predecessors, sings about assessing the highs and lows of his life, yearning to be forgiven for the mistakes he’s made, accepting the inevitability of death, and pledging his commitment to the power of love as an eternal constant for humanity.
This is undeniably compelling stuff, and the music on Bravest Man—so skeletal, downcast, yet pulsing with life—complements it perfectly. Death (along with birth) is one of the few things we all have in common; it’s even more universal than falling in love, so it’s obviously a worthy subject for a pop song.
It can also be a little awkward, especially for those who have to write about an “art of dying” album. In 2011, Glen Campbell released what was billed in advance as his final LP, Ghost On The Canvas, a solid record with some first-rate material from some of my favorite songwriters, including Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices and Paul Westerberg. When Campbell got down to the business of doing what he does best—interpreting great songs and putting his own boyish stamp on them—I quite liked Canvas. At other times, I found it heavy-handed and self-referential. In those moments, Canvas no longer was about the songs, but rather Campbell’s Alzheimer’s disease, which was made public a few months before the album’s release.
“Campbell assesses his life’s triumphs and failures, both professional and personal, tying up all the loose ends while he still can,” I wrote in my review. “It’s a dying man’s eulogy to himself, and it’s as emotionally hefty as that implies. But while Campbell always sounds dignified on Canvas, the weight of his circumstances threatens to crowd out the actual music in the early going.”
In a way, because Canvas was such a personal statement, I felt bad reviewing it. We’ve all been ingrained with a reverence for the dying that masks our fear of the dark void that awaits us all. Last words are fetishized and granted instant profundity. Nobody wants to be the jerk lingering at the deathbed offering a ho-hum assessment of a dying man’s final gasps. But while it’s understandable why someone might want to make an “art of dying” record, why would anyone want to hear it? What do we expect from these albums? And how do we separate our feelings about death from our appreciation of the songs? That was my main issue with the Glen Campbell album: It was only human to hear it with sympathetic ears, but is provoking sympathy the same as being good music?
Listening to an album about death with the knowledge that the person who made it is about to die can’t help but affect your perception of it. Nirvana fans widely interpret the band’s MTV Unplugged In New York as a sort-of suicide note for Kurt Cobain, since he shot himself not long after it was recorded, and many of the cover songs he chose to play touch on death in some way. But imagine if MTV Unplugged had come out before Cobain’s death, and he announced in advance that the album was about the suicide he was about to commit. Would that change the “meaning” of the album? Would it make the music better or worse? I have no idea, but I’m guessing a lot more people would’ve bought MTV Unplugged the day it came out.
The most famous “art of dying” album is probably Warren Zevon’s The Wind, released in 2003 just a few weeks before Zevon died of lung cancer. Just as you could say that Axl Rose has a habit of acting irrationally on occasion, Zevon wasn’t always a nice guy during his 56 years on Earth. He was a hard-drinking, drug-taking womanizer who (according to his ex-wife Crystal Zevon, who wrote a tell-all book called I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead) once talked a groupie into getting an abortion by promising they’d always be together, even though he had no intention of settling down with her. Zevon was cursed in the end by bad karma. But he was gifted with enough extra time to assemble an all-star cast (including old pals like Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, and Emmylou Harris) for one last record.
Zevon’s songwriting specialty was bitingly sarcastic character studies. But nobody would mistake the central song on The Wind, “Keep Me In Your Heart,” as being about anyone other than Zevon himself. Singing in a shaky voice, fighting to withstand the rigors of cancer and the knowledge that his time is at an end, Zevon sounds courageous and humbled, gazing as he is into the eye of the unknown as it closes in. But it’s also a really great song, and would be no matter the context.
That context can’t be ignored. Death has a way of reminding us what’s important, both for the person experiencing it and those of us left behind. The mere existence of The Wind was a reminder that Zevon’s talent was fragile, and therefore worth saluting; the actual content showed what a man is capable of when facing the scariest of consequences, in a way an album recorded under normal circumstances couldn’t.
For Womack, those circumstances can wait for another day. What I like about The Bravest Man In The Universe isn’t what it says about the end of life, but about the continuation of Womack’s artistic life. It’s a record that seems very much of 2012, right down to the weird Lana Del Rey cameo in “Dayglo Reflection.” Womack sounds like a man with a lot of music left in him. It should give us all a new appreciation of the man’s talents, without having to lose them forever.