“America, you’ve been real, honest, hurt and sweet to me, but I wouldn’t change it for the world…” Awww, it’s hard not to swoon at the big hearted humanity of Charles Bradley, the 67-year-old James Brown impersonator who was plucked from a Brooklyn Housing Project and turned into one of the star turns on the roster of the retro soul label Daptone Records.
It was the tear-jerking 2011 documentary Soul of America that first brought him to wider attention, showing Bradley caring for his elderly mother and telling the story of his years of struggle and heartbreak. His travails gave even greater weight to his giant, wailing voice and expressive performances, and in a world of hipster posturing Bradley’s authenticity and sincerity shone.
You still get plenty of those moments of raw pain on third album Changes, but Bradley is now the returning hero, triumphant and grateful, after charming audiences across the globe and establishing himself as a leading voice of the soul revival. “The land where I was born/Sometimes it hurts so bad, sometimes so good/It’s good to be back,” he informs us on the R&B rumble "Good to be Back at Home". You can picture him strutting around his old neighbourhood to it, clad in flared strides, fur coat and shiny medallions, every inch the 70s soul throwback.
The records’ stand-out moment comes on the title-track, "Changes", a cover of Black Sabbath’s 1972 strung-out ballad. Bradley turns Ozzy’s stark, elegiac despair into a gospel slow jam full of pit-of-the-stomach heartache and tear-stained memories. The bare intimacy builds to a climax of Hammond organs and brass howls, with Bradley recalling the death of mother and all those years of pain, and letting out the cry - “It took so long to realise/I can still hear her last goodbyes/And now all my days are filled with tears/Wish I could go back and change these years.”
The mood turns more badass on the funk freak out "Aint it a Sin", as Bradley indulges in a range of his favourite grunts, whoops and “huhs” and lets out righteous threats over swaggering licks stolen from a myriad of Blaxploitation soundtracks. Swaying love letter "Nobody But You", Motown lullaby "You Think I’m in Love" and the dreamy croon "Slow Love" offer some gentle relief, but Bradley really hits his stride when he turns the intensity up, sweat starts dripping from that furrowed brow and those mighty, impassioned bawls of agony are unleashed.
Ultimately the Screaming Eagle of Soul continues to soar, and despite all of the changes, the reasons to fall for Charles Bradley remain constant.