After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, many American urban areas exploded into riots. But not Boston. The story goes that city officials convinced James Brown, who was scheduled to perform that night at Boston Garden, to perform live and on television and urge watchers to remain cool and composed. Brown is often credited with keeping the peace, especially after the white police began forcing his black fans away from the stage. The King of Soul took the microphone, asked the police to step back, and told the crowd to stay calm. Brown’s powerful presence had the desired effect on the whole town.
Charles Bradley is the closest living equivalent to Brown today. He’s a dynamic performer whose style is purposely reminiscent of the Soul King. We live in an age when Black Lives Matter operates as a battle cry rallying against the injustices of racism in contemporary society. Bradley’s no fool. He knows what’s going on. But like Brown, he’s on the side of peace. He opens his new album with the patriotic Irving Berlin hymn “God Bless America” by talking to his listeners over an organ accompanist. He introduces himself and offers a soliloquy:
A brother that came from the hard licks of life that knows that America is my home.
America you’ve been real, honest, hurt, and sweet to me but I wouldn’t change it for the world
Just know that all the pains that I’ve been through it made me strong to stand strong
that knows America represents love for all the Americans in the world
I sing from my heart.
Then he starts to sing the song made famous by Kate Smith. The point is, Bradley understands that while life is hard, real change comes from love. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel pain. He notes that while it’s good to be back home in America, sometimes he suffers so much he just has to wail.
But this is not an album of social protest as much as it is the individual instinctual cry of one trying to find his place in the world. The most affecting track on the album is the title tune, a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes”. He transforms the song into a slow burning gospel-style number about personal loss. Back in the day, heavy metal bands turned black blues into hard rock crunchers. By reversing the process, Bradley shows the commonality of human experience. Everybody hurts, as R.E.M. famously noted.
Bradley may be a powerful singer, but he can also be subtle. His “Slow Love” smolders because the singer knows when to hold back as well as let go. There are many magical moments, too, like on the gentle “Nobody But You”, where he lets the horns take an instrumental break right out of Seals and Crofts “Summer Breeze” to show his deep love for the gentle love of his life.
Times are tough, but we have each other. We should let our good feelings conquer the negative ones. That’s the only way to make positive changes in the world. Bradley sings of his aches and pleasures with such conviction that he makes one believe this is possible.
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