Leon Bridges‘ 2015 debut album Coming Home arrived like a breath of fresh air. The Georgia-born, Texas-based R&B singer arrived seemingly detached from any contemporary pop context, his classic ’60s soul sound drawing heavy comparisons to Sam Cooke, and for good reason. His honeyed voice and classic R&B songwriting style didn’t just nod to a bygone era of popular music, it came wrapped in the vintage aesthetics of Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records. But it wasn’t long before the “retro soul” description became a limiting one for Bridges, as he lamented in a 2016 Pigeons and Planes interview: “I look at “retro” as me singing, ‘I’m going to the diner, and I’m going to get my ’64 Cadillac.’ I’m talking about true stories and real things. It’s not some fantasy world out there.”
Bridges tackled the hell out of an old-school sound once, and that was enough. While artists such as Nick Waterhouse and Durand Jones & The Indications take up the reins for a new generation of classic crooners, Bridges finds himself freed from the analog and tweed to tackle a more diverse and contemporary sound. With his sophomore effort Good Thing, Bridges takes the opportunity to stretch out and take some risks, taking a leap into modern pop aesthetics while honoring a long legacy of soul and R&B. The first single from the album, “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand,” swoons with strings, twinkles with glockenspiel and finds Bridges delivering a bittersweet, passionately-sung goodbye to a lover: “Kiss me before I go, but you got to let me go.” There’s a warmth and directness about it that’s true to Bridges’ songwriting sensibility, but aesthetically it sounds like something from a less-distant era—less Sam Cooke, more Soulquarians.
Where Coming Home was lived-in and bathed in sunlight, Good Thing is more attuned to late-night rhythms. Bridges’ songs largely pulse with elevated BPMs and dancefloor funk, some of the album’s standouts only a stone’s throw from the kaleidoscopic soul of Anderson .Paak. The rollerdisco funk of “You Don’t Know” is nearly as radical a departure as one might expect from Bridges, joyously layering together delay-addled vocals, scratchy Nile Rodgers-style guitar licks and warm blankets of synthesizer. He takes a similar tack on “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)”, wherein Bridges employs the aesthetics of vintage Prince in favor of some playfully libidinous pleas: “Baby if it feels good, then it must be bad how much I want you.”
That Bridges has fully embraced the funk suggests a complete reinvention, which is true to an extent. What hasn’t changed is the positivity that Bridges radiates throughout. He doesn’t always promise a happy ending, as opening breakup track “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand” makes clear, but Bridges’ charisma and joy is infectious. The laid-back folk-soul vibes of “Beyond” underscores an uncertainty in love that comes crumbling down in the track’s soothing, feelgood bridge: “Oh me, oh my, I can’t explain/ She might just be my everything.” On the hypnotic indie-pop groove of “Forgive You,” there are only bruised feelings and wounded hearts, but there’s some peace in closure: “I want you to know we’re OK, we’re OK.” But on the smoky standout single “Bad Bad News,” Bridges flexes a bit, showing off some jazz guitar against a restrained funk backing while he stands his ground in the face of closed-minded critics: “They tell me I was born to lose/ But I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.”
The album’s final track “Georgia to Texas” serves as pulling back of the curtain—a deep biographical dive that strips away some of the stylistic flourishes in favor of something more intimate. “Five-oh-four black girl carry me,” he sings, referencing his mother’s New Orleans roots. “We had no green but the love was strong/ It was all we’d need to get along.” Amid a much funkier, sexier set of songs from Bridges, the earnestness and sentimentality is perhaps unexpected, but not unearned. All of the stylistic experimentation on Good Thing feels natural, even comfortable, and when he does reach this more heartfelt moment, its jazz-influenced arrangement delivers the message in as gorgeous a package as possible. Leon Bridges’ latest set of songs is both adventurous and a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s still the same person at the center of it, turning that timeless pop warmth into something a little different. The neat trick about great songwriting is that it still works no matter how it’s dressed up.
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