If you’re looking for a story that best summarizes the last year in the life of Charles Bradley, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one than the night he and his band showed up in Utopia, Texas to play an outdoor show in the middle of a thunderstorm. "It was just raining, raining, raining," Bradley recalls. "I walked out onstage, and there were about 800 people there – maybe more – all of them just standing out there in the rain and the mud." The band settled in and fought their hardest against the elements, but – for a moment, anyway – it seemed that nature was too much for even the mighty Charles Bradley. About halfway through the show, the power went out, leaving both the band and the drenched fans in total darkness.
At any other show, that would be understood as the meteorological signal for "Quittin' Time," but if there's one thing the last year of tireless touring before enrapt audiences has proven, it's that Charles Bradley does not put on typical shows. "I could hear them screaming, 'Charles Bradley! Charles Bradley we love you,'" Bradley smiles. "And so when the lights came back on, I said, 'If all of you can stand out there in the rain and get soaking wet because you want to see me perform – to see me do something that I love to do – then you know what? I'm gonna get wet, too.'" And with that, Bradley jumped off the stage and into the crowd. "They went completely crazy!" he laughs. "We were laughing. We were hugging. We were getting muddy. It was just love."
That's his whole persona in a single tiny scene: Charles Bradley, victim of love. Other artists appreciate their audiences, just as many are grateful for them, but few artists love their fans as much and as sincerely as Charles Bradley. By now, his remarkable, against-all-odds rise has been well-documented – how he transcended a bleak life on the streets and struggled through a series of ill-fitting jobs – most famously as a James Brown impersonator at Brooklyn clubs – before finally being discovered by Daptone's Gabriel Roth. The year following the release of his debut, No Time For Dreaming, was one triumph after another: a stunning performance at South By Southwest that earned unanimous raves; similarly-gripping appearances at Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Newport Folk Festival and Outside Lands (to name just a few); and spots on Year-End Best Lists from Rolling Stone, MOJO, GQ, Paste and more. Victim of Love, Bradley's second record, is a continuation of that story, moving past the 'heartache and pain' and closer to the promise of hope.
"The first record taps into maybe two or three feelings," explains Thomas Brenneck of Menahan Street Band, Bradley's producer, bandleader and co-writer. "But the range of emotion on this record is huge. The last record was written by a man living in the Brooklyn projects for 20 years. This record is more than just a poor man's cry from the ghetto. This time, he's grateful." Bradley agrees. "I was singing about all these hardships that I've been through. I wanted people to know my struggles first, but now I want them to know how much they have helped me grow."
Drop into any moment of Victim of Love at random and that message is immediately apparent. Where the last record opened with the apocalyptic "The World (is Going Up in Flames), Victim begins “Strictly Reserved For You,” a track that sees Bradley grabbing his girl, jumping in a car and hitting the highway for a romantic getaway. In "You Put The Flame on It," Bradley sings "My life is gold – you put the flame on it," backed by a horn chart that sounds like it was lifted from a lost Four Tops single. And on “Victim of Love,” the song that gives the album its name, Bradley sings, "I woke up this morning, I felt your love beside me," over the kind of gentle acoustic guitar that wouldn't sound out of place on a classic Neil Young album.
Which brings up another point: with the new subject matter comes a broader musical scope. Where Dreaming hewed close to the rough-and-ready R&B sound Daptone has become known for, Victim is stylistically more restless, edging closer into the kind of psychedelic soul The Temptations explored in the early '70s. "I've been calling it 'New Direction Daptone,'" enthuses Brenneck. "People are not going to expect this. There's a lot of psych influences on this record, a lot of fuzz guitar. I'm pushing the band & the arrangements further out, which in turns has to make Charles go further out."
That new direction is most apparent in "Confusion." Opening with the kind of echo-drenched vocal and charging rhythmic cadence that characterized Curtis Mayfield’s "(Don’t Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go," Bradley calls down fire on crooked businessmen and duplicitous leaders. "That song is about a lot of those big politicians who think they can make everybody's decisions for them," says Bradley. "The higher class think they can make up the rules for us. But a lot of those big wigs have never really been down to the harsh life. They don't know how it feels. So I'm trying to talk to people who are going through those hardships." As is typical of Bradley, the song comes off not as a roaring jeremiad, but as a deeply-felt note of sympathy for the oppressed and beaten-down.
But if the album has a summary statement, it's "Through the Storm." Over a deep gospel groove, Bradley expresses his gratitude – to his fans, his friends and to God – for their support, their dedication and their devotion. "When the world gives you love," he sings, "It frees your soul." This is the new message of Charles Bradley, the Bradley who has emerged from the heartache stronger and more confident, overflowing with love to share. This is Charles Bradley, victim of love -- gratefully returning the joy that has been given to him.
"It's all about what you give." Bradley says, leaning hard into that last word. "I don’t care how great a singer you are. I don't care how much talent you have. If you give, and if the people feel what you're giving, you're blessed."
"Charles is deeper than me and you put together," Brenneck says, "His message is, 'I've lived through this. I know what you're going through. And if I can make it, you can, too.' He gets offstage every night thinking he didn't give enough. I say, 'Charles, if you gave any more, you'd have a heart attack.'"
"All I've been trying to show the world is the love I have to give," says Bradley. "I hope that when you look at me, you're gonna see a person who walks this planet in a way that, when the Lord calls him home, He says, 'Well done, servant.' If God can see that I've loved all as He's loved us – that's all I can do. And that’s what I fight to do."