The story of Charles Bradley is nothing short of extraordinary. This, his debut record released in 2011, came out when Bradley was 62-years old. Before his career finally took off and he became a staple of the 21st century soul scene, he would spend two decades working random jobs and performing small shows after hitchhiking across the country to California AND before that, he spent ten years as a cook in Maine! In the 21st century, the word ‘retro’ is often an overused word to describe different expressions of art, but in this case, it’s absolutely justifiable to attach that word to the record. Bradley, being forged by soul and funk music of the ’60s and ’70s, obviously has the feel for what it takes to make retro sound natural.
The opening track on this record, ‘The World (Is Going Up In Flames)’, is an absolute gem of funk/soul that, again with the retro attachment, feels like it could’ve come out in 1971. In a world where the idea of soul music has been hijacked by the likes of lightweight pretenders like John Legend and Alicia Keys, it’s extremely refreshing to hear someone like Charles Bradley on the scene. Bradley’s genuinity and his lack of pretension, added to his honest delivery of the material, make this record’s material arguably the best soul music since Amy Winehouse graced us with her presence. Bradley also has no problem putting out a social statement, as we hear on “Golden Rule”, a track that chronicles some of the anxieties in today’s American society by giving them a shot of good old fashioned soul-weariness Marvin Gaye-style. Bradley has the unique ability of being able to inject both an old-school soul sensibility with a 21st century worldview, with all of its bleakness and cynicism. In the case of this song, it’s Bradley’s portrayal of times gone by that oddly gives off a sense of charm and optimism that refuses to be squashed by the prevalent negativity and mechanical nature of our current world. This record is a safe haven for love to exist and flourish, not to be interfered with by our more easily-obtained trappings. Another definite highlight of this record is Bradley’s cover of Nirvana’s “Stay Away”, easily proving the versatility of both himself as a singer and Kurt Cobain as a songwriter. The addition of this track definitely adds a bit of the angst and aggression from the grunge scene into the soul format, but it works. You can hear such an earnest and genuine effort for this song to be shaped into the frame of this record.
It’s no secret from listening to this record that Charles Bradley is a man who understands his source material and is an excellent interpreter and creator in his own right. It’s very easy to tell that he had been a James Brown impersonator throughout his life; it’s perhaps most-evident in his uncanny vocal delivery, which channels all of the best that the Godfather of Soul ever had to offer; and though Bradley pumps out a bit more filler at times than Brown ever did, his genuinity is undeniable and his best material is damn good and worthy of celebration. It’s nice to hear a record like this flow with such ease and persuasion. The saddest part about this record is that its sound isn’t a prevalent one anymore.