Charles Bradley‘s debut album, No Time for Dreaming, on Brooklyn’s Daptone label, is a product of the 21st century, but it sounds locked in a bygone era. However, that in no way diminishes its power, its ability to communicate a certain pathos, and its musical strengths. It’s the world of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and the other great Stax/Motown artists of the last century that Charles Bradley successfully channels on songs like “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)”. Yet he doesn’t stop at conveying the sound of funky ’70s soul records. Bradley sings, “I can’t turn my head away/Seeing all these things…OK.” His message echoes the tribulations and struggles of that epoch, reminding us that post-Civil Rights social ills are still relevant.
Bradley doesn’t so much reinvent the genre as much as he does reach back and give us an artifact of the past. We get slow tempo ballads, accentuated with vibraphone and phat bass lines, like “The Telephone Song”. The reverb-drenched guitars and Hammond organ of “I Believe in Your Love” are saturated with a ’70s production sound, and the wah-wah pedal sees extensive use.
Bradley’s emotion-filled vocals are filled with the pain of his 62 years living on the streets and in projects, but also with hope. His voice is raw and genuine, belonging to the greats of Motown without becoming a caricature. There’s also a place on this album for midtempo dance grooves, like the title track, where Bradley distills some of the bombastic energy of his live show with a James Brown scream. Reflecting the gravity of his album, it never takes off with a frenetic tempo, but perhaps that’s for the best. Bradley implores us to examine our world, using an older tradition that seems as apropos today as ever.