Charles Bradley is an eternal optimist, always narrowing in on the faintest glimmer of hope to get through even the toughest of times. Anyone whose seen the 2012 documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America would be hard pressed to argue this point; his childlike wonder and excitement surrounding his late ascendancy to latter day soul stardom is the mark of someone who, through it all, managed to hold out hope. In this he virtually personifies the very notion of the American Dream. His hard work and dedication to his craft after decades spent adopting the persona of James Brown and putting his own artistic inklings on the back burner in favor of what would prove the most financially advantageous has finally paid off.

In bringing himself up from a time of extreme poverty and homelessness, Bradley has the potential to possess more than his fair share world-weariness in his voice. And while there is a certain degree of this present—it wouldn’t be a soul record without it—it’s his unbridled optimism and hope for the future that comes through most. Despite the heightened racial tensions and louder cultural dialogue concerning the treatment of minorities in America, Bradley still puts forth a sense of faith in the country that has allowed him, after years of struggling, to find a certain level of success.

As if attempting to pay back the good fortune and favor bestowed on him through the American Dream, Bradley opens Changes—his third release in five years—with a one-two combination of a reverential reading of “God Bless America” and “Good to Be Back Home.” The former is delivered with a spoken word introduction in which he puts into words his faith and optimism—the cornerstones of his perseverance and personal victories—in and about the country he loves. It’s an interesting choice given much of the national dialogue in terms of how black men are treated and it will be interesting to see how this sentiment plays out in the long run.

On “Good to Be Back Home” he puts on his best James Brown and, complete with shrieks and squeals that would make the Godfather of Soul proud, expresses his gratitude once more to the country that he feels has given him everything. Having toured much of the world in recent years, the joy in his voice at coming home cuts through any societal tension and gets to the heart of the matter in that, despite its many shortcomings, America can still serve as the land of opportunity. Given his affable nature, Bradley forgoes heavy-handed platitudes in favor of spelling it out in the simplest, most basic terms. When he sings the song’s title, you believe every word to be true.

Running concurrently with the theme of national pride is the notion of change, both personal and social. The word itself appears again and again, often in conjunction with love, making this a much more introspective affair. Far from a transitional record, Changes finds Bradley as contemplative in these songs as he appears on the album’s cover image. Before, he seemed thrilled to be able to perform for a larger audience, but here he takes that responsibility a bit more seriously and, in the process, delivers a far more introspective set of songs.

The cornerstone of the album is the title track, his stunning cover of the Black Sabbath song, “Changes.” Here he turns the hard rock ballad into the classic soul song it was meant to be. Backed by label mates The Budos Band, Bradley puts his heart and soul into the song, in the process creates one of the most affecting performances of his career. In Bradley’s knowing hands, the underlying sadness and longing that runs through the lyrics becomes almost palpable; the heartache and need to move on virtually reaching out of the speakers to grab the listener. It’s both a declarative statement and a plea for release, one that feels as though it were coming from the very depths of Bradley’s soul.

While it casts a long shadow over the rest of the album’s 11 tracks, Changes feels like a fully formed, coherent artistic statement that serves as a commentary on where Bradley finds himself in the wake of his success and rise from poverty. It’s not as immediately accessible as his two previous releases, but it has far more to offer with repeated listens. Funky, hook-laden and straight soul to its very core, Changes is the definitive statement toward which Charles Bradley has been moving. Confident and in control, Bradley is no longer an imitator as much as one to be imitated. Changes is very nearly perfect.

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