Album review: Does Changes prove soul singer Charles Bradley is the real deal?
When the old legends pass away, it is time to start inventing new ones. Charles Bradley is marketed as a vintage visionary, an old master and a time-worn soul survivor.
The story goes he ran away from home and lived rough while a teenager, trained to be a chef and only flirted with music in his youth, never releasing a note.
In the mid-1990s, then in his late forties, Bradley began moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator in New York. He was spotted by the team behind soul revivalists Daptone Records, who invited him to jam with their hip house band, the Dap-Kings. This eventually resulted in his 2011 debut album, No Time for Dreaming, and the 2012 documentary-film portrait, Soul of America.
Changes – his third album after 2013’s Victim of Love – begins with a self-prophesying monologue, playing further on this mythmaking: “Hello this is Charles Bradley, a brother from the hard licks of life, that knows that America is my home.”
It’s this kind of retrospective, revisionist logic that made Sixto Rodriguez – or the Sugar Man from the 2012 documentary film Searching for Sugar Man – famous in his late-sixties, even though his songs had not been remarkable enough to attract much attention upon their release in the early 1970s.
Unlike Rodriguez, however, 67-year-old Bradley doesn’t even have any forgotten – or forgettable – “vintage” material to tout. He was never a star, a master or an elder. He was a tribute act to a real legend. A cynic might say that now, he’s simply playing a more evolved act, posing as a legend himself.
It’s an enjoyable act, for sure. It would take a heart of stone not to find pleasure in the Otis Redding-aping head-nodder Ain’t it a Sin, the lazy ballad Nobody But You, or the meaty New Orleans-esque strut of Ain’t Gonna Give It Up. As with all Daptone work, everything is painted in a delightfully retro, ship-in-a-bottle sheen, with period production and songwriting that is great fun – but does little more than send curious listeners back to the original source material.
What distinguishes Bradley is his searing, raw delivery. Most of the pre-release hype focused on the album’s title track, a radically reworked version of a Black Sabbath ballad, here recast as a screaming, six-minute vocal workout reportedly dedicated to his deceased mother.
At its heart, this tune is the Bradley debate in microcosm. Is it an emotive exorcism from a tortured soul, or the shameless requisition of the past painted into his continuing pained-troubadour narrative?
Framed as an issue of authenticity, Bradley is either the real deal, or a lucky opportunist exploiting our need for soul to be sung by survivors.
Which side of the fence you sit on will ultimately determine how much joy is to be found in Changes.