With the internet lately being extremely mindful and apprehensive towards “industry plants” and label-manufactured artists, Leon Bridges might sound a little too good to be true, as though he was carefully developed by Columbia Records in a secret laboratory somewhere—but really, he was just another young man washing dishes in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas just over a year ago. It also might sound like Leon was bred and raised on the oldie classics that he emulates and exudes in his own tremendous voice, but that’d be incorrect too. Instead, he was a R&B kid obsessed with R.Kelly and Ginuwine, and happened to stumble upon the likes of Sam Cooke and his contemporaries via Spotify and YouTube. Fast forward to last fall, and he had over 40 labels kneeled over in front of him believing he was the next soul legend, and today, Leon Bridges has not only released his debut album, Coming Home, but he has also managed to craft one of the most refreshing, expressive and tender records 2015 has heard.
In music’s current climate, neo-soul singers of all kinds usually swing towards overexposed clichés; cheesy sexual metaphors, alcohol and drug fuelled lust, autotune and trap-snares and hi-hats—but Leon Bridges found solace in the real, retro ways of the past. Leon’s music is cut from a simple and minimalistic cloth that involves singing exactly how you feel, live instrumentation, brass and jazz chords, and 60’s soul song structures that will have anyone shimmyin’ and shakin’. Coming Home is an experiment in all kinds and tempos of near-ancient soul, with Leon not only flaunting a spectacularly original and rare voice, but also exceptionally moving and beautiful songwriting.
Tracks like ‘River’ slowly spill with warm emotion as Leon croons over the simple strums of an acoustic guitar, while the maternal-tribute ‘Lisa Sawyer’ recognizes the debts owed to his mother over gentle keys and a doo-wop influence. These slower tempo tracks almost leave you frozen upon first listen, as they genuinely sound like remastered soul records from decades past. On the contrary, Leon recorded the bulk of Coming Home digitally, perfectly mastering a sound that belongs on a vinyl record coated in dust on your father’s shelf. Leon can also find a higher-tempo groove without departing from this aesthetic, with the title track and fun-loving ‘Coming Home’ catching a groove that flows from verse to chorus and back around again. Leon doesn’t stray from the heartbreaking side of love, either—’Better Man’ and ‘Pull Away’ point out enough imperfections in his romantic prospects and his own inability to love without strain and blemishes.
If Leon Bridges is half sweet and tender soul, the other half of him is undoubtedly the strong and potent sounds of Southern-gospel. Even underneath the soulful cuts on this record, you can hear gospel-influenced background vocals or church-organs sliding beneath instrumentals. ‘Smooth Sailin’’ is a Southern-blues banger with an infectious riff and enough energy to have anybody at least churn out a two-step. ‘Shine’ stands as a brilliant moment on this record, too, that perfectly blends both halves of Leon’s soul and gospel influences for one slow swaying track that dives into love and faith.
Most often, innovation in music today comes in the form of a sharper and more radical format—whether it’s the distorted and industrial influences that push hip-hop forward or the electronic and dance-funk that seems to be driving pop. Instead, Leon Bridges is able to bring an even more innovative and refreshing outlook on music, all while borrowing sounds from past generations. But, don’t get it twisted—Coming Home is not an album that’s 50 years late. Rather, it is a record that channels sounds and sentiments that are utterly timeless.