The history of Leon Bridges illuminates much about contemporary soul music. He is a black artist from the South, “discovered” by established white rockers, Austin Jenkins and Josh Block of White Denim. His classic brand of doo-wop, soul, and gospel is being touted as a “revolution.”
But what does Leon Bridges do that sounds so new? What does he bring that makes old feel contemporary? The answer, for better or worse, is very little.
Modern soul’s two divergent directions are best illustrated by the genre’s de facto royalty: Queen Adele and King D’Angelo. While one veers towards power ballads and the other jazz-funk, neither particularly resembles the ancient artists like Otis Redding that Leon Bridges so deftly imitates. That’s why early singles like “Coming Home” felt so unique and essential when first released, despite basically being ‘60s reboots. Like a time machine, the song’s opening moments effortlessly transport us, employing familiar doo-wop harmonies and Bridges’ smooth “Baby, baby baby…” to suggest the past as a retro diner employs red leather booths and chrome.
However, if Bridges’ refusal to update his music is often one of the album’s strengths, his refusal to update his lyrics, especially concerning the album’s amorous and romantic themes, is certainly one of its weaknesses. “Better Man” hampers a relatively innocuous adultery story with lines like, “I was singing with them jezebels,” namedropping a ‘60s era racial stereotype as antiquated as any. “Brown Skin Girl” follows with a promising bouncy, brass-buoyed number, but hangs itself up describing less a modern beauty than a 1950s fantasy—a “princess, little honey with a polka dot dress on,” “white pearls round her neck,” and “ruby-lipped" to boot. Even the album's romantic geography is rooted in the historical mystique of old-school blues—proving his love by crossing the Mississippi River or recounting his mother's romantic adolescence in New Orleans. It’s not that Bridges is incapable of describing romance in more current terms, but that he’s unconcerned with reaching modern audiences through modern means.
This outmoded style, of course, is the draw, musically. Coming Home more often than not possesses a venerable, regal beauty. Bridges’ voice is charming and persuasive. The backing band proves itself more than capable on any variety of musical throwbacks. It’s this precise competence, however, that makes me wish Bridges had even once treaded into deeper water. Instead of using his enormous talent to reinvigorate modern soul with its antecedents’ earthy rebelliousness, Bridges fully retreated into protective cave of commercial viability to create Coming Home, whose popularity will owe itself, in equal parts, to musical craftsmanship and borrowed nostalgia.
It is in “River,” the final and best song on the album, that we discover some hope as to Bridges' future direction. Singing over a guitar that recalls indie-folk mainstays like Fleet Foxes, Bridges breaks the song open with a chorus born of Black American Baptist gospel, proving that a swelling choir and well-placed biblical imagery is as effective now as ever. While religious yearning can seems forced or affected in modern pop music, Bridges anchors the song with an earnestness and sincerity that the album’s remainder, despite its absence of pretensions, often lacks. Perhaps it’s because his music never once acknowledges the present, a place where Leon Bridges most certainly lives.
There’s a distinct pleasure in finding something so clearly displaced in time, like discovering a byzantine vase in a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Yet, as the novelty fades, all one is left is something pretty at which to gaze. This complete lack of musical and social context—as further indicated by the story of Bridges' emergence—renders the pleasures of Coming Home ephemeral, equal in duration only to the length of each song. The album is one giant, immaculate anachronism, unimpeachable, but rarely brave.