I’d heard of Elvis impersonators, and even seen an Elvis Costello cover band, but never in my life did I know there was such a thing as a James Brown impersonator — not until Charles Bradley flew onto my radar, anyway. But apparently, that’s essentially how the man made his living for a good many years, playing lounges and belting out soul and R&B chestnuts in a style that was basically impersonation. Listening to his debut recording — comprised entirely of original material, I might note — and it’s not such a difficult thing to imagine: This is a man who’s steeped in classic R&B, and he wears his adoration for the great soul singers like a badge of honor.
But is No Time for Dreaming just a case of note-perfect idol worship? By no means — I mean, not just. True enough, I suppose: The sound of this thing is pure, vintage R&B, a startlingly vivid recreation of the grease and sandpaper grit of classic Stax sides and Muscle Shoals soulfulness — what else would one expect from the Daptone imprint, a label with which Bradley has deep ties, having performed with Sharon Jones and played with the Budos crew?
Give the man some credit, though; for one thing, pulling off an homage this uncanny is no easy feat, and for another, this is Bradley’s debut album, released at 62 years of age and after an entire career of struggling to make it as a singer. He deserves major respect for his endurance and his spirit of long-suffering, a spirit that carries over in the music here, which may be an homage on one level but is also a deeply personal record on another. The title song here is sort of a motivational tune, with the singer kicking his own ass and defying himself to slow down or give up; it’s a beautiful song, and not just because this album is the physical fruit of its own promise.
There’s also an autobiographical number, “Why is it So Hard,” which sounds like the title of a blues song but is really more of a swaying, horn-drenched soul ballad. The song recounts Bradley’s own struggles as an entertainer, but the song’s pointed questions — “Why is it so hard to make it in America?” — point to one of the record’s other strengths, namely, how sits songs thread together so many different strands of the classic R&B tradition, like the socioeconomic tunes that appear here and there, particularly in the dynamite opening number “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” and the organ-fueled funk cut “The Golden Rule,” one of the most thrillingly raw and gravelly performances Bradley gives here. That last song also hints at gospel, in its lyrics more than anything else, and indeed, there are some nice, Al Green-ish moments here in which babymaking R&B and smooth gospel are united, particularly on the pleading ballads.
Any lingering concerns about the album essentially being a throwback — which, of course, on one level, it is — are basically rendered irrelevant by just how good of a throwback it is, how typically excellent the Daptone production is, how hot the performances are and how potent the bond between singer and band—something that’s made evident in the inclusion of one brief instrumental, an admirable act of humility coming from a singer who’s waited so long for his much-deserved turn in the spotlight.