Columbia / 2015
Bedecked in high-waisted slacks, short-sleeved polos and wearing a sculpted wedge hairstyle, Leon Bridges seems to have stepped forth from a time machine to take 2015's music world by storm. With a classic gospel timbre and a backing band as perfectly synced to the the sound of fifties soul as his fashion is to its look, the 25-year-old singer is remarkable in that rarely has a performer so thoroughly embodied a retro aesthetic. But Bridges is more than a latter-day Sam Cooke impersonator. He isn't just imitating the icons of soul music past - he's in the power of the same spirit. It's telling that growing up under the watchful eye of his religious mother, he furtively listened to Usher, not Otis Redding. He gradually found his way from modern R&B to his throwback sound after first picking up the guitar four years ago - Bridges didn't even know who Sam Cooke was until a friend mentioned he had a similar vibe. "...you can't teach soul music. It has to be something already inside you. It's not something that you can try to do -- it's who you are", he told Billboard in an interview.
That authenticity is what keeps Bridges from being just a post-modernist curator of the past. And fashion isn't only the only thing carried over from the period - he keeps the spiritual essence of soul more intact than his revivalist contemporaries. Leon Bridges is one of the most hyped artists of the year, in the secular division of one of the Big Three record labels, but his repertoire is out-and-out gospel. It's his nostalgic appeal that's disarming. Only a man in the guise of a singing, guitar-playing museum exhibit could sing "use me as your vessel, Lord" and ride it to the nexus of mainstream success in 2015.
Bridges' debut album, Coming Home, is split evenly between those gospel tunes and punchdrunk love songs. He excels at playing the wounded lover, pleading with his sweetheart to take him back on the Motown-inflected "Better Man". He exposes a wide sentimental streak on the album, too, sketching a picture of his grandparents' first meeting at a New Orleans dancehall on "Twistin' and Groovin'". The same goes for "Lisa Sawyer", where Bridges tenderly and reverently narrates his mother's biography in a syncopated lilt that stands as his finest vocal performance on the album. Overall, though, those vocals are the chink in the record's armor - they attest to inexperience and a lack of confidence. Coming Home has crystal-clear ambitions and a stellar band to realize them, but Bridges' singing voice can sound flat, like a dance partner too focused on getting the footwork right to put any swing in his hips.
"River", the album's closing track, is magnificent, though. Bridges' voice and acoustic guitar are unaccompanied save for a simple tambourine clap, until a gospel choir join him on the sublime refrain. Earworms abound these days, but it's rare to hear something like "River" that strikes one as truly beautiful. This song is a treasure.
One year ago, Bridges was washing dishes in a music venue where he played open mics. The video for "Smooth Sailin'" is an effective reminder of that fact. It's as simple as music videos come: the musicians and backup vocalists form a semicircle around the singer, who looks like a million bucks in a crisp teal suit as he grooves to the music. Charisma is key for videos like these, but his dance moves are self-conscious. His arms move shyly in the air at his sides, like he's not quite sure what to do with them. Coming Home is a pleasure in itself, but when Leon Bridges really spreads those wings a few years down the road, it might really be something to behold.