The first time I saw Charles Bradley, he rendered me speechless. It was at last year's Newport Folk festival. I know that at some point, I was able to muster the following tweet: "More horn section! More shiny velvet jacket! More splits!"
Listening back to a recording of the concert, I am once again struck by how completely the 64-year-old Bradley has mastered the art of performance. (He will appear at Paradise Rock Club in Boston on May 18.) The show opens with a groovy bass vamp, and then the drums kick in, followed by a sultry descending riff from the horns. Bradley, however, is nowhere to be heard. After a few minutes one of the musicians addresses the crowd:
“It is an honor and privilege for me to introduce to you the original black swan; the original victim of love; and the one and only screaming eagle of soul ... Mister Chaaaaaaarles Bradley!”
The man knows how to make an entrance, and he gets even more mileage out of it by putting it off. When he finally starts singing, the crowd explodes. His voice sounds like it has been worn raw, perhaps from booze and cigarettes but more likely from the unspeakable sorrow that permeates every syllable.
It is pain that he has been up front about from the start. Bradley’s startling ascent to success has always been accented by his troubled past. As a boy he saw James Brown in concert and was inspired to sing, but this dream was deferred for decades as he moved from state to state and job to job. Down on his luck in California after losing steady employment, he moved back to Brooklyn to live with his mother. It was there that his brother was shot and killed a few doors down from their house. And it was there, too, that Bradley worked up a popular James Brown impersonation act, was discovered by the co-founder of the funk label Daptone Records, and began making his own music.
A modest eleven tracks long, his latest offering, “Victim of Love,” is shorter than his 2011 debut “No Time For Dreaming.” And while that album sounded like a veritable lost gem from the ‘60s, “Victim of Love” is subtly updated. Bradley’s voice is much higher up in the mix, for one thing, and the production shimmers with a slick, spacious sheen.
“Victim of Love” is not so savvy as to be cynical; even on songs that feel like filler, Bradley sells the material with characteristic fervor. But it’s material that, next to the heart-wrenching facts of his life, is surprisingly bland. Bradley can’t be blamed for not revealing too many sordid personal details in his lyrics, but he treads so cautiously that even songs about heartbreak are apt to land with a thud. As a songwriter, he has yet to master the art of remaining evasive while still telling a good story.
There are a couple of bona fide earworms in the offering, namely the seductive “Strictly Reserved For You” and the jaunty “You Put The Flame On It.” The rest of the album is impeccably executed and unremarkable apart from Bradley’s singing, which, it bears repeating, is nothing short of remarkable. Even within the confines of the recording studio he seems to occupy his own altitude.
“Victim of Love” undoubtedly pales in comparison to Bradley’s live shows. But by paying proper tribute to the man’s spectacular vocal chops, at the very least it succeeds in reminding you how stunning the live version actually is.
In truth, “Victim of Love” is the inevitable sequel to a well-worn inspirational narrative. Bradley made a breathtaking entrance; now it’s time to let the band vamp while he finds his footing. Even then, he’s worth watching.
Amelia Mason is a writer and musician living in Cambridge. Those pesky “day jobs” she has to “make money” really aren’t worth mentioning. Naturally, she also has a blog: blog.ameliamason.com
This article was originally published on May 15, 2013.
This program aired on May 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.