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REVIEW: Charles Bradley brings comforting familiarity with “Changes”

Soul singer Charles Bradley released his new R&B album “Changes” on Friday. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA
Soul singer Charles Bradley released his new R&B album “Changes” on Friday. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA

Last year, artist Leon Bridges released his well-received and unexpected debut studio album, “Coming Home.” It was a soulful revival of the old-school sort as Otis Redding would have played it. The emotion behind it was palpable, and it hung on my kitchen wall for a good portion of the summer of 2015. Enter Charles Bradley and his newest album, “Changes.”

Don’t be mistaken though — Bradley has been around longer. In that respect, 26-year-old Bridges has nothing on Bradley, who celebrated his 67th birthday last November. Though Bridges tugged the heartstrings — watch the music video for “River” — and respectful reproduction of classic R&B and soul, Bradley lived through it.

You can tell. And it’s wonderful. If anything is apparent in “Changes,” it’s that Bradley is ecstatic to be doing what he does. Thematically, the album stays tightly built around love, as so many soul albums tend to do. In “Nobody but You,” for example, Bradley relishes in the unremitting bonds of love, not unlike Al Green might. The song ends in a hugely powerful moment with blaring horns, reminiscent of the opening of Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze.”

The horns in “Changes” are worth spending a few seconds thinking about. Almost every song has brass to varying degrees, and they always sound top-notch. That’s not something mind-blowing. The musicians Bradley draws inspiration from always had excellent brass companionship, but it’s worth commending something that is well executed, if not unexpected.

Instrumentals in “Changes” as a whole are great, though outshined for the most part by Bradley’s vocals. I challenge even the most stoic listener not to bob their head or tap their foot during “Ain’t It a Sin.” The song sits very comfortably as the structural center of the album that reminds us, after the heartbreak of Bradley’s cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” that the album is still one intended to stir up nostalgic feelings of unbridled fun.

Maybe “unbridled” isn’t the best word for “Changes.” It’s easy to get swept up in the upbeat tracks and forget that there are some serious moments where Bradley bares his soul. The titular track, “Changes,” is a very personal example of this. Although it is a cover of a Black Sabbath song, it loses no strength through Bradley’s impressive lungs. “Change for the World” is a more socially evocative track that provides just as much power.

“See? I come with open arms / Stop hiding behind religion / Hate is poison in the blood,” Bradley belts.

What’s the solution?

“We gotta change our love / We gotta change for the world,” he sings in the chorus.

The order of tracks in “Changes,” especially as it begins, is unique and memorable.

“Hello, this is Charles Bradley / A brother that came from the hard licks of life / That knows that America is my home,” Bradley says as the album begins. The track, “God Bless America,” is a short rendition of the 1918 patriotic song of the same name. When Bradley starts singing, he comes out in an explosion of vocal excellence. There are few opening tracks more unique.

The following track, “Good to Be Back Home,” would have been far more conventional were it placed in the first spot. Thankfully, the song is just as great where it stands. “God Bless America,” given its brevity, sets up a sort of curious expectation, and “Good to be Back Home” delivers on all fronts.

The familiarity and upbeat tempo of the rhythm of “Good to be Back Home” are welcoming both to Bradley and to the listener. He’s glad to be back in the studio doing what he loves and wants us to be right there with him. Maybe it’s that his themes of love are so universally recognizable, or maybe it’s the nostalgia stirred up by his similarities to all-time greats like Redding, Green and Brown, but it’s hard not to feel at home listening to “Changes.”

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