Old soul from an old soul

I am not one for much cosmic mumbo-jumbo, so I have a somewhat difficult time admitting that I chose Charles Bradley’s Victim of Love because I read online that the singer and I share a penicillin allergy.

Photo by © Daptone Records.
Photo by © Daptone Records.

I am not one for much cosmic mumbo-jumbo, so I have a somewhat difficult time admitting that I chose Charles Bradley’s Victim of Love because I read online that the singer and I share a penicillin allergy.

However, because I get paid to listen to music and then write about it, I feel now and then that I should retain some iota of humility.

Sure, I knew what I was getting into: I’d heard the name tossed around, and my glowing review of Frank Ocean’s soulful Channel Orange is stashed away in the online annals of Vanguard lore.

That said, I’m accustomed to critiquing soul music in a roundabout, Pitchfork feeding trough sort of way. What I wasn’t prepared for was this—old soul from an old soul.

You see, Bradley is a spry 65 years old. That’s a perfectly acceptable age for someone who lived through the Stax and Motown days and still records this kind of stuff, but here’s the kicker: Bradley didn’t record one note until 2002.

If that doesn’t strike you as peculiar, this might: Victim of Love is only Bradley’s second full-length album, 11 years later.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s—a time that this record was obviously meant to emulate—recording techniques heavily relied on massive piles of studio gear, and with these technological limitations, the raw, smoke-enveloped recordings that defined the era were born.

Listeners prize these recordings for their warmth and the imperfections that only add to the nostalgia for a time likely never experienced.

The sad reality is that while current recording technobabble offers us thousands of paths to the eventual product, an ever-expanding pool of rookies toss their hats into the recording ring, and the end product sometimes lacks focus, or is missing the master’s touch that makes those old records so special.

Let me begin by saying that there was a certified master at the helm of Victim of Love. Without digging for the nitty-gritty technical details, the record sounds like it was recorded in the Stax Records studio, with cigarette smoke so thick you’d have to swim through it.

Granted, I haven’t perused the entire catalogs of Stax and Motown, but multiple soul records found their way into the rural town I grew up in (and eventually to my mother).

I listened to quite a bit of soul growing up, and that nostalgic feeling never really fades. So when a record like this comes on it sends a lightning bolt through my spinal column that lets my brain know this stuff is the real deal.

Folks, I am glad to say that Victim of Love is that real deal.

The production is ripe with everything that makes a great soul record: thick, lush vibrato-awash guitar lines on dreamy, ethereal leads accompanied by hyper-compressed fingerpicking on solos; crisp snares and sweet, masterfully compressed kick drums; viscous organ and vibraphone that ooze into the wax cracks.

You may even hear someone slowing down a tape reel, like on “Confusion.” The same track also features Bradley at his most enigmatic.

While his voice is the centerpiece—and rightfully so—on every other cut, on “Confusion” the talented backing band swallows it whole. Bradley’s voice, dripping wet with emotion, yells from behind a backdrop of expertly layered aural brick and mortar.

The album’ leadoff single, “Strictly Reserved for You” is a no-brainer pick. The opening line, “I’m tired/of the city life/I’m tired/of the city people/tryin’ to get in my business,” perfectly encapsulates Bradley’s journey to where he is now.

He spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn before becoming a runaway and eventually settling in Maine. After hitchhiking all over North America, he began his singing career only after moving back to Brooklyn to be with his aging mother.

Charles Bradley
Victim of Love
Daptone Records
Out Now
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

After performing in tiny clubs as a James Brown impersonator, he was discovered by Daptone Records, as the story goes. Every release by Bradley has been on the label.

But it is this record, in which he expresses his frustration with the meager fame Daptone has brought him, that showcases Bradley on his A-game.

While there are several cuts running the gamut—not just love and heartache—of human emotions, there are other, more personal tracks, like the aforementioned “Strictly Reserved for You” and the title track, “Victim of Love,” that reveal Bradley’s soul at its most cleaved and exposed.

Bradley’s voice strains and cracks as he professes his undying love for a person whose name is never mentioned, and it’s lines like “I love you so doggone much” that remind us all of our humble, respectable elders telling stories that only carry understanding once our years pile up.

Not only is Victim of Love a wonderful soul record, it’s a treat for anyone with ears.

And while I seem to be on a roll with five-star albums these days, I haven’t heard much that’s let me down lately. That streak is only prolonged with Victim of Love, and I guess you could call it a cosmic coincidence.