It almost didn’t happen for Charles Bradley. At an age when most are concluding their careers, his finally began with the release of his 2011 debut album, the vibrant and visceral No Time for Dreaming. Since then, it’s been a rocket ride for the Florida-born, Brooklyn-reared “Screaming Eagle of Soul.” After being discovered by Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth, the former James Brown impersonator has become a critical darling and even the subject of a documentary (Charles Bradley: Soul of America) that debuted at last year’s SXSW.
Since his emergence, soul and R&B have at long last taken measurable strides of legitimate evolution to finally look beyond the bubble of golden-era revivalism. In the company of this new wave of pioneering young artists, lighter-weight retro acts look quaint at best and obsolete at worst. Bradley, however, proves that the classic stuff, when done with true gravity, remains eternal.
It’s all in his gorgeously seasoned voice, every heavy pound of his long, hardscrabble life. All those blues – he’s lived ’em. His singing is so paramount that, let’s be frank, the music is a frame that just needs to not fuck anything up.
And under Thomas Brenneck (Menahan Street Band) – Bradley’s producer, bandleader and co-writer – that’s not going to happen. To Brenneck’s credit, this album shows a bit more reach, with shades of psychedelic soul (“Confusion”) showing in its exquisite ’70s inner-city heart. One of the highlights, the voyaging groove of “Dusty Blue,” is in fact an instrumental. Otherwise, it’s best when Bradley leads, as in prime cuts like the sweet street slide of “Strictly Reserved for You,” the radiant afternoon breeze of “You Put the Flame on It” and the big-city hustle of “Love Bug Blues.”
Bradley’s expression has handled the pressure and grind of time like a beautifully carved stone. Instead of eroding its force, as it does to most singers, the years have lent it higher proof and concentration, as if to certify the vintage of Bradley’s voice. It’s truth, infinite and unvarnished. And, though it’s been a lifetime coming, the man has finally taken his rightful place in the bright spotlight.
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)