Few things are more spiritually profound than getting a hug from Charles Bradley. He really means it, for one thing, and he seems to take as much solace from the gesture as he inevitably gives. It’s a lot like his music.
Bradley is a soul survivor who came up the hard way, scratching out every break he ever got through a combination of working his tail off and perseverance. You can hear it in his voice, a magnificent, gravelly shriek that retains traces of the James Brown impersonation he used to do under the name Black Velvet. By now, at age 67, that electrifying voice has definitely become its own thing, and he inhabits the songs on his new album as if he lived them. He probably did: Bradley has said he comes up with lyrics on the spot, while the band vamps behind him, giving his words an especially heartfelt emphasis.
Backed by a selection of musicians from the Daptone Records stable who lay down one hard-edged groove after another, Bradley draws on his recent experiences traveling around the world to perform, along with a few more standard soul tropes involving love and heartache. He sounds humble and grateful on “Good to Be Back Home,” bemusedly lovelorn on “Crazy for Your Love” and vexed on “Ain’t It a Sin,” a bone-rattling boogie tune propelled by choogling guitar, blaring horns and rapid handclaps.
The improbable centerpiece of the album, though, is the title track, a reworking of a mawkish Black Sabbath piano ballad from the group’s 1972 album Vol. 4. The original was inspired by drummer Bill Ward’s breakup with his first wife. Bradley turns the tune into a deeply soulful tribute to his late mother, with tremolo guitar taking over the piano part and accompaniment from low horns, the gentle burble of a Hammond organ and a solid, subtle rhythm.
Like its predecessors No Time for Dreaming and Victim of Love, Changes is a strong entry into the canon of modern soul with a vintage heart. Even better is what the album represents for Bradley: after decades of struggle, the Screaming Eagle of Soul has come fully into his own.