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Leon Bridges gets funky

The soul singer updates his retro sound and delivers a winner on his new album

A 2015 photo of Leon Bridges performing during the American Music Awards. Photo: Getty Images
A 2015 photo of Leon Bridges performing during the American Music Awards. Photo: Getty Images

In 2014, when the music blog Gorilla Vs Bear streamed Coming Home, a song by Leon Bridges, it marked a turning point in the then not-yet-25 soul singer’s career. The award-winning Gorilla Vs Bear is a music connoisseur’s trove that discovers, curates and streams music from all sorts of genres, and, when it streamed Bridges’ single, it created instant ripples. Bridges’ retro style was a throwback to the soul music of the 1950s and 1960s and quick comparisons were made with the late Sam Cooke (aka the king of soul), who was one of the first in that genre to break into mainstream pop audiences. Shortly after Gorilla Vs Bear streamed Bridges’ song, the Fort Worth (Texas) native landed a record contract, and, in 2015, Coming Home, the album, was released. It was received with critical acclaim and commercial success and Bridges was on the fast track to success.

Yet, there may have also been other factors behind his meteoric success story. Not long before Coming Home came out, he was still eking out a living as a busboy and dishwasher in restaurants to support his mother, and playing in small dive bars to audiences of 20 or fewer. But he also looked the part. His nostalgia-tinged old-soul style was matched by his penchant for the sartorial fashion of the 1950s. It still is: vintage suits, high-waist trousers, and a clean-cut look. Besides complementing his music, that style may have had something to do with the break he got. Spotted at a bar by the guitarist of White Denim, Austin Jenkins, also a 1950s’ style aficionado, the two bonded and it eventually led to Jenkins co-producing Coming Home, recording it on analogue equipment which included a soundboard that was, incidentally, once owned by the Grateful Dead.

That debut album showcased Bridges’ gospel-imbued voice and its impressive range and the themes of the songs were both nostalgic and intimate. The lyrics described personal subjects such as the handed-down story of how his grandparents met; a tribute to his single mother; and the contents of a letter to a former lover. With the accolades came fame, quickly establishing Bridges as one of neo-soul’s most promising rising stars. His sartorial sensibilities also got noticed. The stylish online retail destination for men, Mr Porter, did a feature on his looks, deconstructing the Bridges look but also featuring some of the brands he wore—a Boglioli slim-cut navy suit, a Jil Sander Polo shirt, but also my favourite, A.P.C.’s polished leather derby shoes. But his meticulously curated personal vintage style also led some critics to wonder whether his music and his image were just a little too carefully constructed and what the path that he would tread in future would be like. Would he continue to channel vintage soul or move up a notch or two?

Those doubts vanished this month with the release of Bridges’ second album, Good Thing. With his second full-length effort, Bridges has moved forward not just by a few notches but a couple of decades. From the very first track, Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand, it’s clear that Bridges has no intention of living in the past. The sound is lush, with way more instruments than there were on Coming Home, which had the sax, piano, organ, drums, guitar and bass—traditional fare that would have featured on it had it been made in the 1950s or the 1960s instead of 2015. On Good Thing, there’s a surprise burst of other sounds: A lush French horn shows up; a glockenspiel enters; a variety of string instruments weave a tapestry; and, wait a minute, synthesizers show up and add crazy, funky touches.

Bridges experiments vocally as well on the album: There’s a new falsetto that makes subtle appearances; as does a call and response style of singing on a couple of songs. It’s as if the singer on Coming Home has done some time travelling to the future or, rather, the present. Good Thing’s songs are funkier, jazzier and have the mood and idiom of latter-day R&B. Seek and you shall find influences of D’Angelo, Usher, and even Pharrell Williams. But glimpses of those influences are subtle, ephemeral even. Because on Good Thing Bridges demonstrates true talent: His old-school soul roots are intact even as he adds layers of new styles. It’s his lyrics that make a difference, quite often with their intimacy and personal touch. On Mrs, a no-holds-barred love song, he sings about make-up sex: Sometimes I wonder what we’re holding on for/ Then you climb on top of me and I remember. On Georgia To Texas, a second tribute to his mother, he sings autobiographically about life and race.

Listeners who loved his first album may think that musically Good Thing goes all over the place—well, there’s funk and jazz and R&B and even a bit of pop—but that really is a good thing. It wouldn’t be good if employing multiple genres had turned the album into a hodgepodge of things. The fact is, it hasn’t. At the bottom of it all, Bridges holds true to his commitment to old-school soul and that manifests itself in his lyrics and singing style. If Coming Home was a great album to dim the lights to and slow-dance with your partner in the intimacy of your kitchen, Good Thing is an excellent album to do the exact same thing. Only, it’s likely you’ll get up and dance sooner to it than you did with its predecessor. As for me, I’m waiting to see what direction Bridges takes next.

The lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Georgia To Texas’ by Leon Bridges from ‘Good Thing’

2. ‘Shy’ by Leon Bridges from ‘Good Thing’

3. ‘Mrs’ by Leon Bridges from ‘Good Thing’

4. ‘Lisa Sawyer’ by Leon Bridges from ‘Coming Home’

5. ‘Brown Skin Girl’ by Leon Bridges from ‘Coming Home’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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