In addition to opening for Lord Huron, Leon Bridges’ recent stop in Chicago included a performance at the iconic Green Mill, a jazz club that dates back to 1907 and still houses Al Capone’s favorite booth. Seeing Bridges play his retro soul in that vintage space held an immediate allure; I wanted to dress up in my best coat and tie, walk under that marquee, and let Bridges’ sateen vocals and melodies whisk me back to the ’60s.
Two things stood in the way. First, word of the songwriter’s skill had gotten around, and the few tickets available were going for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market. Second, this was 2015, not 1960. As much as I liked the idea of musical time travel, there would be cell phones held up throughout the crowd and other constant reminders of the current era. To be fair, the former half of the argument was definitively the deciding factor in my ability to attend, but the concern about how fully one can inhabit a sound and image from decades ago also hovers over Bridges’ solo debut, Coming Home.
Bridges makes no bones about his musical upbringing; he’s not claiming to be some mystic transplant from another age. He grew up on Usher and Ginuwine, but hearing Sam Cooke unlocked the musical potential bubbling under the surface. “It made me happy to make it identical,” Bridges recently told The Guardian about reviving Cooke’s sound. “The simplicity just sounded so good.” He’s right: Coming Home uses the tools and formulas of Cooke and Marvin Gaye without embellishment. It’s also telling that the decision was instinctual. The happiness he got from hearing and then recreating that music is palpable, infused into the bones of these songs.
Nothing about Coming Home feels calculated. The key track is “Lisa Sawyer”, a cotton candy puff of storytelling in which Bridges tells his mother’s life story over an easy-strolling gospel pop track. It’s hard to say whether the aww-inducing description (“the complexion of a sweet praline, hair long as the sea, heart warm like Louisiana sun, voice like a symphony”) or musical flourishes (tenor sax solo and wordless girl-group backing harmonies) are sweeter. Bridges’ love for his mother and for the music drips golden like honey: something natural that exists for its own sake.
The brassy “Better Man” shows off Bridges’ more upbeat side — one listen, and you’ll be able to envision him and a few backup singers stepping one hip out toward the audience and snapping in unison. The production, aided by vintage gear and the helping hands of White Denim’s Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, hums throughout Coming Home, picking the right spot for every lazy drum fill or punch of horns. Bridges similarly varies his delivery, offering smoky ribbons on the excellent “Smooth Sailin'” and full-throated, elongated vowels on closer “River”. Though the album lodges itself in a single era, it makes the most of the various strains of R&B and soul that the time had to offer.
The saccharine approach can be overwhelming, no matter how expert and genuine the time-slipping may be. “Ooh baby, don’t you know you’re a cutie pie?” Bridges croons on “Brown Skin Girl”, one of a few moments on the album that can tip into the obnoxious if you’re not in the right mood. That said, Bridges so carefully and humbly builds this world that it’s difficult to find yourself outside of his sway. He even honors his obvious influences. On “A Change Is Gonna Come”, Sam Cooke sang that he was “born by the river.” On Coming Home, Bridges details his pains, sins, loves, and desires, but all he wants is that strength and salvation: “Take me to your river/ I wanna go.” Cooke ran like the river, insisting upon change. Much like he found inspiration and life in Cooke’s music, Bridges wants to be taken to the river, be baptized, changed, and breathe again as his “sins flow down the Jordan.” Complete with a gospel choir, Bridges ends his album on a note of hope and longing, aware that the salvation he seeks seems as far off as the ’60s, though he’ll reach out for it just as well. As his sensual lyrics and ecstatic voice fade away, it feels like he could grasp it.
Often, blatantly retro acts can feel like Halloween costumes on a trick-or-treater: an approximation of something familiar worn temporarily to get something in return. The best retro acts, though, feel more like the work of professional costumers, the kind that get Oscars for making you believe they stepped right out of another era. On Coming Home, Bridges solidly aligns with the latter, his soulful R&B studied and nostalgic, but also immediate and emotionally true.
Essential Tracks: “Smooth Sailin'”, “Lisa Sawyer”, and “River'”