Album Review: Leon Bridges, ‘Coming Home’
Ever since Leon Bridges arrived on the scene with standout showings at this year’s SXSW, both critics and fans took note of the Texas-hailing singer’s old-school style. The high-waisted trousers and rolled shirt sleeves; the cover art for his debut effort, Coming Home; and of course, his faithfully ‘50s- and ‘60s-inspired brand of soul -- they all recall a time long since gone.
Most musicians can duplicate their influences. However, it’s a rare artist who can carve out a place for their retro stylings in seemingly endless music libraries brimming with records that are increasingly modern in both sound and production and exist as anything other than today’s buzz and tomorrow’s forgotten MP3 buried in a neglected playlist.
Of course, Bridges hardly shoulders this vintage aesthetic on his own. Artists like Amy Winhouse, Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones all come to mind. They have each made a good case for recalling previous decades while making their music feel at home today. Bridges admirably joins that group with Coming Home.
With Austin Jenkins and Joshua Block of the Austin psych-rock outfit White Denim behind the boards (along with a reserve of analog equipment), Bridges achieves a debut that knows its lineage. On it, the singer manages an impressive balancing act that combines the effortless, laid-back quality of a Bobby Womack or a Curtis Mayfield and, most of all, the precise clarity in delivery and pop crossover sensibilities of Sam Cooke.
“Better Man” even has Bridges vowing to change his ways and forsake “jezebels” and all-nighters in a way that's reminiscent of Cooke’s own promises to overlook his subject’s past transgressions and pleas for her to “Bring It On Home to Me.” Likewise, “Twistin’ and Groovin',” punctuated with brass and a meandering guitar line, serves as the young singer’s fresh take on a canonical conceit explored by Cooke and many who came before and followed: powerlessness in the presence of love found on the dance floor.
On “Flowers,” Bridges sports an airy doo-wop and announces, “I wanna tell you about the good news” -- one of several nods to not only the singer’s musical roots, but also his own personal family history and religious upbringing. Bridges’ church-informed gospel arises again on the beautiful album closer, “River,” on which he mesmerizes in the midst of an echoing chorus, light finger-picking and the gentle shake of a tambourine as he admits to his flaws and asks forgiveness.
But “Lisa Sawyer” is the most literal and poignant retelling of Bridges’ ‘60s-born influences. The song details his mother’s own complex origin story and her relationship with religion, all the while exposing her son’s deep and evident admiration for the woman who raised him. By the song’s end, though, Bridges manages to distill it all into the concise but potent summation: “She was born in New Orleans.”
However, his predecessors -- Cooke in particular -- allowed themselves to make raw and engaging left turns in their deliveries, whereas Bridges seems to keep himself under vigilant check. Still, you get the sense the singer is just as capable of capturing that powerful confidence and charisma, and Coming Home promises that Bridges has plenty of room to grow and continue to dig into his influences in ways that are unexpected and equally meaningful in their modern setting.