It’s hard to believe that Charles Bradley, the “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” just released his first album, No Time For Dreaming, two years ago. The 64-year-old soul singer and Gainesville, Florida native has got a world-weary presence to suggest that he’s been around much longer.
Maybe that’s because he has, in a way. Bradley’s story has been well documented, and it’s the stuff of legends, from his stint as a cook in a mental institution to his time as a James Brown impersonator to his migration to New York City, where he joined the Daptone family and became the sometime front man of the Menahan Street Band. And now, only two years later, Bradley’s sophomore release, Victim Of Love, both delivers on and expands upon the promise of his debut.
Bradley and the Menahan Street Band debuted some of the songs on the album at two triumphant, exuberant shows at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Onstage, sweat and tears poured from Bradley with each syllable, and electricity seemed to flow through each karate chop and hip shake. His message is one of love, and that comes through especially well in this new album, which explicitly tackles both the heartache and promise of love as its subject matter. This time around, Bradley and multi-instrumentalist producer Thomas “TNT” Brenneck have re-captured the classic soul sound that made No Time For Dreaming such a firecracker of a record and called up comparisons to soul greats like Otis Redding and James Brown, but they’ve also expanded on it by edging into psychedelic ‘70s soul territory.
On album opener Strictly Reserved For You, Bradley laments: “I’m tired tired of the city life / I’m tired of the city people / trying to get in my business.” His answer to these city blues is to escape with his love. The album’s standout track, You Put The Flame On It, provides a perfect cadence for swaying and clapping and its call-and-response vocals find Bradley wailing that “I found out it was true / all I need is you,” and “When it was cold / you brought the spring to me.” Nothing new, perhaps. A sentiment that has been around since My Girl. But somehow, Bradley brings an almost palpable sense of immediacy to his performance.
Love Bug Blues opens with buzzing horns and heavy organ tones before exploding into a foot-stomping, minor-key, swampy soul groove. The album’s psychedelic peak comes with Confusion, a hard-driving stunner that opens with a atonal, claustrophobic wash of ticking clocks (a bit like those in the Chambers Brothers classic Time Has Come Today) and found sounds intercut with pitch-shifted maniacal laughter before resolving in a delay-soaked incantation from Bradley: “Fear! Greed! Confusion!” Crying In The Chapel finds Bradley taking on the role of a jilted lover left at the alter – perhaps the ultimate victim of love. And album closer Hurricane opens with a sound of thunder and in its refrain, Bradley sings the praises of long term love gone right: “I thank you for help me carry on / through the storm.”
Victim Of Love is exactly the kind of soul we’ve come to expect from Daptone Records, a label whose name is on its way to becoming as synonymous with the genre as Stax or Motown. And Charles Bradley proves that his nickname is well earned. He’s lived it long and hard, and with this album Bradley continues to lay out all the goodness and badness of life and love, with soul to spare. Bradley’s take on love says that if he is a victim, maybe we all should want to be.