One could be forgiven for, upon pressing play on Leon Bridges’ debut album, wondering whether they had in fact stumbled upon a record that has been gathering dust in the back of a recording studio somewhere in Mississippi for the past 50 years. There are plenty of recent acts who have been influenced by soul music – the likes of Adele, Winehouse and Smith have proved it can be a rather lucrative business – but there are very few artists that genuinely sound like they belong in that era; Bridges sounds like he’s been around for a long time.
The 25-year-old Texan specialises in the sort of old school soul you might expect to hear over the hiss and crackle of an AM radio as well as the sweet blend of rhythm and blues with pop sensibilities that put Berry Gordy’s Motown Records on the map back in the early ‘60s. Indeed, Bridges counts some heavy hitters amongst his key influences – Sam Cooke and Otis Redding loom large over proceedings – and it is a credit to the young singer that his music doesn’t ever buckle under the weight of history.
Throughout the album, the songwriting is simple and direct. ‘Coming Home’, the title track and the song that first caught people’s attention last October, kicks off the record with lush backing vocals and delicate piano keys that tastefully compliment Bridges’ voice. It’s a formula that is revisited repeatedly during Coming Home’s brisk 34-minute running time, notably on the standout ‘Lisa Sawyer’, the singer’s heartfelt tribute to his mother, which features some of Bridge’s finest lyrics (“She had the complexion of a sweet praline, hair long as the sea, heart warm like Louisiana sun, voice like a symphony”) set against girl group harmonies and gospel-influenced instrumentation.
The record is produced by Josh Block and Austin Jenkins of Austin rock band White Denim, whom Bridges met after they witnessed a performance of his in a bar in his hometown of Fort Worth. The duo – whose day job is a bluesier and altogether more ragged affair – have tempered their style accordingly to the material and enlisted a number of local session players to add tenor sax, doo wop backing vocals and rag time piano to accompany Bridges’ retro aesthetic.
If the record has an obvious weakness, it’s that some of the tracks on offer can sound overly familiar, even on first listen. The album skips along pleasantly enough, but it’s on tracks such as ‘Brown Skin Girl’ and ‘Flowers’ where the songs feels too slight to really register with the listener and Bridges’ approach begins to feel somewhat tired and worn.
In an interview with The Guardian in February, Bridges talked about being “fascinated” with the sound of the ‘60s soul singers and about wanting to “recreate it exactly”. It’s up for debate whether this carbon copying of the past is an altogether good thing, but it’s hard to deny that Bridges has achieved what he set out to do with his first LP.
On the closing track, ‘River’, Bridges showcases perhaps his finest vocal performance when, backed only by an acoustic guitar and some minimalist flourishes, his voice is allowed to take centre stage as he seeks some form of atonement for his sins. It’s in moments like this that Bridges truly sounds timeless.