Charles Bradley has been one of the most electrifying, stand-out stars to come out of the soul scene over the last handful of years, a unique figure with a passionate, booming screech that’s led to him being dubbed the Screaming Eagle of Soul.
His story, in itself, is fascinating: after decades of drifting across North America and working low-paying jobs, he was scouted by Daptone Records magnate Gabriel Roth while performing in New York as Black Velvet, a James Brown impersonator. In 2011, at the age of 62, he released his debut album, No Time for Dreaming. The record smothered old school R&B arrangements onto Bradley’s powerful, pained memories of the shooting death of his brother, and his lifelong quest for love. 2013’s Victim of Love followed suit with a few psychedelic touches, and now he’s returned with his third full-length platter, Changes.
The title track, a cover of the Black Sabbath ballad from 1972, will be familiar for many fans, having first been issued on a 7-inch in 2013. It’s inclusion is warranted, as it’s a damned impressive, slow-cooking take on the cut, with Bradley’s tear-stained delivery masterfully soaking regret-laced lines like ” wish I could go back and change all these years.”
Fine though it may be, the fact that a three-year old cover appears on the album should also be a concern. Despite being titled Changes, Bradley is still sticking to the traditional vibes of his past. At his best, he’s a powerhouse, but the record suffers from a bit of same old, same old.
Opening up the collection is “God Bless America,” an interpretation of the patriotic hymn that begins with a personal introduction from Bradley, a “brother that came from the hard licks of life.” The track is quick and graceful, and oozes with soul-stirring organs and church choir backups.
A masterstroke in his catalogue, “Good to Be Back Home” is a sly, funked-up meditation on his travels around the world. A buzzing, speaker-panning guitar lead and chill vibraphone set the mood for the frontman to deliver hard-yelped cries, James Brown-grade “good gawds,” and the simply stated message that sometimes it’s nice to hang your hat at home.
Bradley’s album goes beyond the personal, though, with “Change for the World.” The scene he paints is unsettling, an ever-timely rumination on racial tension, religious zealotry and gun violence. His voice cracks, distorts, and gets upended with dub-style layers of cavernous tape delay, but he still manages to stay positive above the rumbling bass runs and scattershot horn work. “I ain’t afraid to love ya,” he promises to the world.
There are revelatory moments on Changes– brow-mopping sweat-and-shout number “Ain’t It a Sin” being another keeper– but the record suffers on its more traditional pieces. While Bradley beams “you make me feel so complete” on “Things We Do for Love,” the song’s mid-level sizzle of teeter-tottering piano lines and politely plunked guitars is a little underwhelming. Also playing it safe is “Crazy for Your Love,” a devoted, drop-down-to-my-knees pledge he’d already mastered on older cuts “Lovin’ You” and “Strictly Reserved for You.”
On a technical level, Bradley and his crack team of soul pros are still hitting the same notes that had the masses adoring his first two LPs. That said, this same standardization means there’s not too much in the way of growth on Changes.
-review by Gregory Adams