God was having a good day when he made Charles Bradley.
Black Velvet is both a eulogy and a fitting end to Bradley’s remarkable career. In of possession a voice that can only be described as ‘godly’, Bradley only made four studio albums, and each of them is an absolute classic. This new record only furthers his impressive legacy, and offers some of his strongest material to date.
The title of the record is a reference to what he called himself when performing tributes to James Brown, and it makes perfect sense – his slinky, sexy cover of Nirvana‘s Stay Away is vital street-funk, transforming the dour grunge of the original into something celebratory and seductive. He takes the kind of approach to the track that he did to Black Sabbath‘s Changes: he makes the thing entirely his own. He was a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs, and this just proves it.
He also takes on Neil Young‘s stone-cold classic Heart Of Gold and completely transforms it. In Bradley’s hands, it is infused with soul, imbued with an earnest reflective tone. Fly Little Girl is an album highlight, with chiming psychedelic guitars tempered by a steady beat and Bradley’s yearning voice.
Slip Away features insistent percussion and sultry brass. The shimmering guitars of the title track – an instrumental – are gorgeous, as is the seductive brass. Luv Jones is another brilliant track, with funky drums and slinky guitars – and when Bradley finally starts singing (a couple of minutes in), you’re left in sheer amazement at the pacing of the song. It works perfectly, using the main man sparingly, for maximum impact. I Feel A Change is the most ‘classic’ sounding thing here. It’s slow, sensual R&B, and it showcases Bradley’s gift to the fullest. He emoted like nobody else – he could seduce a palm tree. It’s heartfelt and emotional, pristine but bruised.
This doesn’t feel like a hastily compiled cash-grab like most posthumous records do. Hell, Michael Jackson seems to have released more albums dead than he ever did alive. This is a tribute to a man with an incredible voice, and an acknowledgement of just how much of a missed opportunity Bradley’s career was. To have only recorded three studio albums in a career that long is criminal.
But this, hopefully, is not the drying of the well. Perhaps somebody recorded a live performance that does justice to Bradley’s incredible stage presence. Perhaps he recorded tonnes of material that will be gradually drip-fed to his fans.
However, if the well has run dry, and there’s nothing left to be had, then Black Velvet is as good a send-off as any. It showcases Bradley’s strongest talents, and is just as good as any of the records he released when he was alive.