A few years ago I got to meet Charles Bradley, as part of the promotion of his appearance at the International Arts Festival in Wellington. We talked a lot about his backstory and how James Brown saved him. And about he found escapism in the character of the Godfather of Soul as a very good JB impersonator.
That was two albums ago and now on his third effort you get the feeling the 67-year-old soul singer’s is ready to move on, if only just a little bit. But it’s his underdog narrative that has never changed. He’s still as endearing and grateful as he ever was. That’s pretty obvious by the short gospel tinged speech in the opener God Bess America, which references the recent sentiments many Americans have towards their country and the current state of economic and political affairs .
If you line them up Changes is his most straight forward album but it definitely documents the growing dynamics between himself and the band. ‘The Screaming Eagle Of Soul’ now takes full control and ownership of his musicians – the Daptone session musicians the Menahan Street Band (replaced on tour by The Extraordinaries) – and in turn they respond to the leadership creating some of that magic BB King and others of his generation mustered up during the best albums of the 70’s Soul era. That’s not surprising, given it’s the label’s house sound. Still it’s a satisfying outcome all round.
Here and there you get smatterings of hip-hop drums and a bit of Vernon Reid from guitarist Thomas Brenneck. There’s even a spot of ‘name that tune’, like at the end of Nobody But You when the horns break into the sax riff from Seals and Crofts 1972 hit Summer Breeze or the piano jam at the beginning of You Think I Don’t Know (But I Know) which is gotta be fingered from Freddie Scott’s long forgotten single (You) Got What I Need.
Lyrically Changes is pretty much the same as his previous works but his vocals are more versatile this time, more light and shade. And even better less James and more Bradley. ’ There’s plenty of old skool funk on Good to Be Back at Home, where he sings about being a latecomer international headline act and his bittersweet feelings about leaving and returning home (Bradley still lives in his mother’s basement). His faith is still pretty strong throughout: “Heaven is crying, the world is shaking / God is unhappy, the moon is breaking / Blood is spilling, God is coming.” Changed For the World reads like a fire and brimstone pulpit piece, albeit wrapped in a gospel groove.
But overall this is an album about love and relationships. Good ones, wronged ones, making up and falling apart – the usual stuff. Most obviously it’s on the super-retro Things We Do For Love, which is dowsed liberally in doo-wop accompaniments. But the most intense moments come with a Black Sabbath cover, and the album’s title, Changes. It’s a bit unexpected but it works. A deeply personal ballad about a breakup is turned into an aching tribute to his late mother, who originally neglected him in his youth and accepted him back as her caregiver during her last years. “I’ve lost the best friend I’ve ever had.” The song and the accompanying video are all about Bradley at his most vulnerable. It’s definitely as tender as anything Sufjan Stevens has made recently.
Unlike his last album, Victim of Love, Changes offers more variety and more soul, if that’s possible. It also goes a little way towards establishing Bradley as more than just another retro act. His sound is clearly vintage but that’s not a bad thing. The spectre of JB is still there. He’s still got a way to go to find his own voice but on this album that train has definitely left the station.