When Charles Bradley’s final album, Changes, was released in April of 2016, I had it on repeat for months and months. It felt prophetic. As the political and social landscape became increasingly turbulent, the album provided me with some sort of a grounding force. If we think of the months leading up to the 2016 election as the beginning of the current moment, then now we are at the next inflection point, and over the past few violent and difficult months, I have been returning to Bradley’s Changes. It is just as relevant and necessary as ever.
Immediately remarkable about the album is its footing as pure, unadulterated soul. Not neo-soul, not retro-soul, but capital S Soul. Changes didn’t merely draw upon the ‘60s sound, it seamlessly brought the genre – and all of the traditions that go along with it – into 2016. Daptone’s Thomas Brenneck produced the album in a minimalist fashion, with very few special effects, but he spared nothing when it came to backing musicians. Most of the songs feature musicians from The Menahan Street Band, a few are backed by the Budos Band, and The Gospel Queens are featured on two songs. Changes is laced with organ trills, horn jabs, an almost psychedelic bass, and on several tracks, you can hear people partying along with Bradley in the background. Each track pays homage to ‘60s soul in its instrumentation without simply recreating the ‘60s Stax/Atlantic sound or relying on nostalgia. The album is Soul at its core, but the sound is distinctly Bradley.
Central to every song is Bradley’s voice. When he starts to get going, it’s like sitting in a motorboat while someone revs the engine, rough and hearty, and then gliding away on the water. His voice is what earned him the nickname “The Screaming Eagle of Soul.” This was his third record with Daptone, and while his characteristically roaring voice has always held fast, Changes stands apart. By far his most cohesive album, this one is personal to Bradley. At 67, the former James Brown impersonator, known for his high energy performances and astounding vocals, solidified his individual voice and sang from a profoundly personal perspective. In doing so, he deviated from a sound sternly reverent to the ‘60s soul aesthetic. Between Bradley’s voice and his emotionally provocative lyrics, he reignites a genre exactly when we need it most.
Charles Bradley sings right to the soul: the soul of the listener and the soul of the country. Soul grew in tandem with the Civil Rights Movement and the two are closely entwined. Bradley continues this legacy, beginning the album with a rendition of “God Bless America,” which he sings as a love song, directly addressing America, the country that’s caused him much pain and grief. He opens the track by introducing himself:
“Hello, this is Charles Bradley
A brother that came from the hard licks of life
That knows that America is my home
America, you’ve been real, honest, hard, 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 know
America represents love for all humanity and the world
I say from my heart
God Bless America
My home sweet home”
In the heat of police violence, Black Lives Matter, and an ever-deepening racial divide in 2016, Bradley tackles what it means to be a Black person in the United States head-on as “God Bless America” rolls right into “Good to be Back at Home.” He sings about America in the same terms as he has sung about tumultuous romantic relationships.
In “Change for the World,” Bradley invokes a rallying call to action. “Hate is poison in the blood/ Heaven is cryin’, the world is shakin’/ God is unhappy, the moon is breakin’/ Blood is spillin’, God is comin’.” He urges listeners to “Put away the guns and take this love.” With the reverb and delay on his voice in this track, it sounds like Bradley is imploring us to change from on high. His tone is powerful yet optimistic and carries through the whole album.
The title song, “Changes” is, as you may have guessed, a cover of the Black Sabbath song. This surprising rendition of the Ozzy Ozbourne classic is nothing but awe-inspiring. Kevin Young in The Gray Album notes the long-standing tradition of Black soul artists covering white popular music, like Isaac Hayes’ cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By” or Curtis Mayfield’s cover of The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun. Young writes that soul is “a black means of transforming material, … to return to the blues tone of the music.” Bradley does just this as he reimagines the song which was originally about an ex-lover to be about his late mother, to whom the album is dedicated. It is her memory and wisdom that he seeks to imbue throughout this album. With or without that knowledge, his rough voice on this track can summon tears.
After Changes was released in 2016, the radical optimism that saturates the album felt necessary to get by and to summon the energy needed to take action. In the current moment, optimism feels inappropriate, insensitive, and nearly impossible. Bradley’s optimism, however, is not one rooted in ignorance (willful or otherwise), but rather in an acute understanding of the issues facing this country that need to be confronted. The album creates the space to acknowledge silver linings and small victories while still bearing witness to violence and cruelty. Listening and re-listening to Bradley’s 2016 brand of radical optimism in Changes can help in regaining energy, envisioning and working towards the just future that Bradley summons in the album. Bradley died in 2017, leaving Changes as his greatest legacy which, I believe, will serve us well into the future as it’s served us these past four years. As one of the most fraught years in recent memory turns into another and with so much uncertainty about what lies ahead, it is worth re-listening and considering Bradley’s voice and vision as a means of solace, rest, and reinvigoration. Works Consulted
Charles Bradley. Changes. Daptone Records, 2016, CD.
“Charles Bradley.” Daptone Records. 2013. Accessed October 02, 2016. https://daptonerecords.com/charles-bradley/.
Young, Kevin. “Chorus Four: Moanin’: Soul Music and the Power of Pleasure.” Essay. In The Grey Album: on the Blackness of Blackness, 249–73. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012.
Abigail Nover is a sound designer and composer based out of Miami, Florida. She works as a freelance designer for theatrical productions in English and Spanish throughout the country. She holds a BFA in Sound Design from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama and an MA in Folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work is often rooted in cultural memory and immersion. In addition to theatrical work, Abigail conducts oral histories and writes about cultural and sound studies. She is a member of the OISTAT Sound Design Group.