Charles Bradley revisits soul music in his debut
Charles Bradley’s debut album, No Time For Dreaming, is as crackling and soulful as an Otis Redding record from the 1960s and as contemporary as the world that shaped the life and voice of the Brooklyn native into a voice now worthy of a tip of the hat from James Brown himself.
Since its release this January, the album has become a frontrunner of the soul revivalist movement started by Brooklyn label Daptone Records. But the music is hardly out of date. The tracks transcend loyalty to a genre often relegated to boxes of LPs in dusty attics across America; their fresh arrangements provide easy playability for R&B, Motown and general music fans alike.
The album opens with a mid-tempo groove titled “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” which has the most universal head bumping appeal of all 12 tracks. Heavy piano chords are punctuated with sharp guitar upstrokes and a pulsing bass line that create a rhythmic background accentuated with a thumping kick drum and light snare pops. Bradley enters the track alongside undulating vocal harmonies, asserting that, “The world is going up in flames / and nobody wants to take the blame,” and that, “They don’t see me trying / They don’t hear me crying / but I can’t turn my head away / I’ve seen all these things.” He immediately puts himself in a position of protest, drawing from his own personal experience of homelessness, and implores the world to see all the shadowed things he has seen in the underbelly of society.
In perhaps his most raw and autobiographical track, “Why is it so Hard?” Bradley does not wax with poetics. When the intro ends and the horns fall out in a gentle vibrato, Bradley enters the song frankly and without pretense, asking, “Why is it so hard / to make it in America?” His rugged voice is the irrefutable center of attention as it rolls over rising waves of reverb-drenched guitar and softly clicking drums and carries with it the sound of a hard life spent on the streets. As the verse continues, a Hammond organ whistles, as if straight from a gospel church in Memphis, and the snare begins to pop as the horns chirp in behind Bradley’s growing inflections. Bradley then recounts his life, saying, “I was born in Gainsville, Florida / I traveled far and wide / Then I moved to Brooklyn, New York / had hard times.” The chorus then erupts in an epic culmination of all the layers of sound that were mere interjections in the verses as they weave themselves into a thick cloud behind Bradley’s soulful cries.
It’s not the fact that he says he “tried so hard” that makes his music powerful or the ornate poetic lyrics that makes his music move you; rather, it’s the poetry in Bradley’s experience-charred voice that makes every track on this album worth a listen.
Though he tackles serious and heavy themes in his debut, Bradley’s tracks are not somber, nor is one left feeling depressed. Through all of his wailing cries for change and professions of enduring love, Bradley manages to emulate the Motown greats without losing his own identity or becoming a caricature of artists from days long gone—making his first album a stand alone success that is both old school and incredibly dynamic.