When the credits roll, Charles Bradley sings, “I thank you for helping me through the storm.” According to director Poull Brien, his documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America needed a conclusion—an original song that summed up his look into Bradley’s slow rise from James Brown impersonator to Best New Artist at age 62. Fortunately Bradley’s songwriting partner, Thomas Brenneck, had the start of a song handy. Immediately, Bradley started to sing.
“Through the Storm” now concludes Bradley’s sophomore album Victim of Love, out today. The idea for his album title came on a beautiful day in Madrid, spent inside a dingy bar. Bradley was discussing with Brenneck and R&B revival trio Little Barrie the nicknames he’s earned over the years, when a patron mistakenly heard one, Beacon of Love, as “Victim of Love.” Brenneck thought of how Bradley takes care of his 89-year-old mother, even before he agreed to move into her basement this year. He also thought of how audience members have cried on Bradley’s shoulders after shows. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, Victim of Love is so bold,’” Brenneck said. Immediately, he wanted Bradley to write a song.
By his debut album No Time for Dreaming, released in January 2011 via Daptone Records, Bradley bore a lifetime of odd jobs, bouts of homelessness and heartbreaking loss—memories and struggles that often made him cry at the sheer thought. He has since toured festivals like Austin City Limits, South by Southwest and Bonnaroo, and Daptone Records even reissued No Time for Dreaming less than a year later. As a result, the former James Brown impersonator learned to embrace singing as Charles Bradley, as he does at age 64 in Victim of Love.
In the spare, soul-inflected No Time for Dreaming, Bradley’s resemblance to the Godfather of Soul was almost uncanny. His wails especially harkened to a time captured in Soul of America, when Bradley would tuck his hair under a slick wig and perform as either James Brown, Jr. or Black Velvet. But as himself, without the wig or the act, Bradley struggled to sing even briefly about what he had endured. The first time Bradley heard a studio version of No Time for Dreaming’s “Heartaches & Pain,” a song about his brother’s final moments before he was shot dead, Bradley walked away and refused to hear the rest.
These days, a Charles Bradley song is born quickly. Brenneck plays some music in the works. Bradley waits. If a few minutes pass, then—nothing, next. But, if lyrics come to mind, he claims the song as his from the moment he starts to sing, when his weathered voice lands on a distant or not-so-distant memory. “It could be something that I’ve been through in my own life, that I hear in that one key, that one stroke—’Wow, I remember that!’—and I’ll sing it,” Bradley says. “I think that with all the pain, trials and tribulations that I’ve been through, when I hear a certain key, it awakens something in my brain.”
No Time for Dreaming was Bradley providing a quick introduction to his past and present. While Bradley still struggles to speak on specific memories that pop up in Victim of Love, his songs do cut deeper. “I’d made up my mind, I was going to love you until the end of time,” Bradley sings in “Crying in the Chapel,” before he segues into what happens next. “It’s a touching moment, to express that feeling,” Bradley says. “It’s just like, have you ever been in love with somebody in your life and time, and they tell you everything they want to tell you, and then your best friend come tell you that they’re with someone else and they’re going to get married? That’s the only way I can explain ‘Crying in the Chapel.’ I don’t want to get deep into it.”
Victim of Love’s bolder and fuller instrumentals also reflect Bradley’s growing fearlessness. Brenneck remembers playing a song inspired by Isaac Hayes and Jimi Hendrix, when Bradley suddenly said, “I got the hook,” and started to sing. That song became Victim of Love’s eighth track “Where Do We Go From Here,” in which Bradley segues from a story about a friend who suddenly turned aloof into a gentle lecture about why that’s unacceptable. “We thought this would be too rocked out for Charles, but as soon as he started singing it, it just became a badass soul song that had a different flavor,” Brenneck said. Turns out, such psychedelia would remind Bradley of how disoriented and troubled he’s felt throughout his life.
When Bradley speaks of his music career, he refers to it as a prayer-ordained chance. But in the album’s title track, when he sings “I’m a victim,” Bradley belts it as a proclamation. In “Confusion,” one of Bradley’s two favorites of his own songs, he begs through this barrage of noise, only to snap himself out of his pleading tone. “Confusion!” he yells, as if ready to fight. Through music, he has found a greater sense of hard-won purpose. “I hope that these lyrics will be with you, in your personal life, in your deepest, darkest moments,” Bradley says. “I hope that when you’re in those dark moments, just remember these songs and that you can come forward too and realize all your dreams.”
At the end of Victim of Love, Bradley sings, “Day after day, week after week, month after month / turned into a year.” He’s singing of his time spent since his debut. Performances in the United States and abroad had rehashed memories that Bradley housed for so long, these sources of pain and anguish that seem responsible for the deep creases on his face, if not the hoarseness in his voice. Those memories led to new songs and a new album. And, as Bradley embarks yet another tour, month after month will turn into another year in which he finds himself through the storm.