For 65-year old retro-soul singer Charles Bradley, known endearingly as “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”, success never came naturally nor easily. His first solo album didn’t materialize until 2011, when No Time for Dreaming was released on the Dunham imprint of Daptone Records (home of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings). “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” was the emotional centerpiece of the soulfully-drenched debut, making many question why the former James Brown imitator hadn’t broken through long before his ‘60s. Bradley’s second solo album, Victim of Love arrives more highly anticipated than his debut, accompanied by label mates/soul band the Menahan Street Band and promoted by single “Strictly Reserved for You”. Thomas Brenneck (of Menahan Street Band) serves as producer, bandleader, and co-songwriter.
“Strictly Reserved for You” is a superb opening selection. Gentlemen-like in every facet, Bradley passionately serenades his lady (“I’ve got the love…”) with the help of backing vocals (”...strictly reserved…”). If Bradley’s gritty vocals weren’t enough soulful authentication, “Strictly Reserved For You” is further authenticated by excellent horn arrangements from the Menahan Street Band. “You Put The Flame” continues sheer excellence, picking right up where the valedictory opener left off. The tempo remains spry, with Bradley capably embodying ‘60s soul—think early Temptations. Employing the sweetest rasp vocally, comparable to his musical influence James Brown, Bradley’s personality shines like a beacon on the balladry of “Let Love Stand a Chance”. “I’m asking / I’m asking / just give love / love a chance,” he sings resolutely on the refrain.
“Victim of Love” opts for a second consecutive slower cut. The results are equally alluring to “Let Love Stand a Chance”, with Bradley accompanied by sparer instrumentation (acoustic guitar, bass, vibes, and backing vocals). The timbrel contrast works magnificently, allowing for plenty of space for Bradley’s nuanced vocals (and howls) to shine. The harmonized backing vocals are stunning as well. The tempo picks up on “Love Bug Blues”, notable for an addictive, mid-tempo funky groove. Backing vocals continue to accentuate Bradley’s lead, whether it be harmonies on neutral syllables or lyrical punches “Burning!” or “Fire!” “Dusty Blue”, a purely instrumental cut, proceeds, allowing the band to further showcase its musicianship.
“Confusion” is arguably the most clever cut from Victim of Love. “Confusion” is likened to the Blaxploitation, psychedelic-infused soul of the 1970s, which possessed a more experimental edge. As far as cues, it’s comparable to the Temptations’ 1970 classic “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)”. The bold song opens with an array of random sound effects, before settling into a head-nodding soul groove. Bradley’s vocals are as pointed as the accompanying horn articulations of the Menahan Street Band. Bradley continues to show off his vocal rasp on “Where Do We Go From Here”, doing it even more compelling on the slower, grinding soul of “Crying in the Chapel”.
“Hurricane” channels Marvin Gaye a la 1971’s What’s Going On, with the percussiveness of the groove and Bradley’s vocal approach. The backing vocals are vital to the tracks success, almost punctuating Bradley’s lead. “Through The Storm” proves to be a reflective, telling closing cut: “I thank you / for helping me / through the storm / I thank you for helping me carry on through the storm.” It is simple, but given Bradley’s touching backstory and the rawness of his pipes, the sincerity is apparent from the first note.
Overall, Victim of Love is a magnificent retro-soul album through and through. Bradley’s vocals are ripe and rich with soulful grit and emotion, clearly shaped by his challenging and unfortunate life experiences. Bradley sings with a passion that many artists half his age only wish they could come near approaching. Victim of Love is best described as classic and authentic without feeling anachronistic in the least.