Coming Home

Leon Bridges

Columbia, 2015

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


"I'm not saying I can hold a candle to any soul musician from the '50s and '60s," Bridges says, "but I want to carry the torch.”

If Leon Bridges was nothing but a gimmick—a guy who channels the sound of vintage soul music like he just stepped out of a time machine fresh from a session with Sam Cooke in 1962—that wouldn’t be enough. But the sound, as meticulously fashioned as it is, is just a frame for the stories being told. What makes Leon Bridges exceptional is the songs he writes—insightful, poetic and deeply felt—and the way he sings them: like he might never get the chance to again.

He holds nothing back, and that’s what makes his debut disc, Coming Home, something special. Produced by Niles City Sound, whose principals Austin Jenkins, Joshua Block and Chris Vivion receive co-writing credits with Bridges on these songs, this album delivers a purity of vision that’s rare today: ten tracks of music that’s both a remarkable recreation of a familiar sound, and a completely unique and personal artistic statement.

From the start of the opening title track, every detail is perfect. The gently swaying, echoey rhythm section, heavy on the cymbals, Bridges chanting “Oo-oo-oo” before coming in with “Baby, baby, baby / I’m coming home to your tender sweet loving / You’re my one and only one / The world leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, girl / You’re the only one that I want / Wanna be your ride…” It’s absolutely masterful. Here Bridges earnestly pleads; on the subsequent “Better Man” he adds a measure of urgency—“What can I do to get back to your heart? / I’d swim the Mississippi River if you would give me another start”—even as the four-woman-strong background chorus demurely sings “Doo-wop, doo-wop.”

The juxtaposition of vintage and modern elements only serves to amplify the impact of these songs. “Brown Skin Girl” references a “polka dot dress” and things being “groovy” even as it’s explicitly mentioning race in a lyric that would surely have been whitewashed back in the day to appeal to “mainstream” (i.e. white) listeners. “Smooth Sailin’” pushes the tempo a bit, featuring sweet call-and-answer vocals, a throaty baritone sax and a tidal, surging r&b foundation designed to get your hips shaking as Bridges works his magic: “Sweet pretty baby, won’t you be my lady.”

While the first four tracks focus on romance, “Shine” and subsequent tracks find Bridges delving deeply into the gospel element of his musical heritage. “Lord, don’t remember my sins from my youth” begins this very pretty, slow-burning ballad that’s simultaneously rich with passion and also a prayer for absolution. Next up, “Lisa Sawyer” frames a biographical narrative about his mother’s conversion with sax and organ against a gentle rhythm section as the background vocalists decorate the high end with a chant of “Bop-bop, bop-bop.” “Flowers” takes a different musical tack, an upbeat number with a hint of boogie and more big sax, but the message remains the same: “Over the hill, salvation rests in the sun / Eternity baby, so won’t you come?”

In the home stretch, “Pull Away” and “Twistin’ & Groovin’” turn back to romance. The first is a soul ballad fresh out of 1959, with Bridges crooning against a backdrop of piano and organ and doing some playful call-and-answer with the background chorus. Then “Twistin’” turns up the tempo for a steady-on finger-snapper about a lonely guy at a dancehall looking for a new lady to give him a chance.

Plenty of the aforementioned tunes are impressive in their own ways, but it’s closer “River” that really seals the deal. It’s a baptism song whose lyric feels ancient and timeless, like an African American spiritual placed inside a classic soul music frame. The distant, echoey sound of the tambourine sends chills as a single acoustic guitar strums and Bridges sings “There’s blood on my hands and my lips are unclean / In my darkness I remember, Momma’s words recur to me / Surrender to the good Lord and he’ll wipe your slate clean / Take me to your river, I wanna go.” It’s one of the purest gospel songs I’ve ever heard.

What Bridges and his production team have done is go back to the originals, the Sam Cookes and Jackie Wilsons, and figure out down to the smallest detail both what made them tick and what made them special, and then employ that style to craft original music. The result is an album that feels like it exists inside of its own unique time and space and world. In every sense of the word, Leon Bridges’ debut album Coming Home is a revelation.

Rating: A-

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