Good Thing (Sony)
Album title notwithstanding, Leon Bridges knows that when you are on to a good thing you don’t stick to it.
Having made his mark, in a niche-gone-viral manner, as an old-old school soul smoothie – more Sam Cooke than Aretha Franklin, more smart suits than glitter bombs, more cream than coffee beans – Bridges has stepped away from the sound which turned him into a star.
Not completely. Not without connections. But more than enough to allow everyone to say categorically this is not the same young, lean Texan who moved with the grace of a dancer, sang with the purity of a chorister and could have stepped from the stage of the old Copa. And even if not exactly an unqualified success, it may be the smartest thing he’s done since finding the tailor who runs up his extremely fine threads.
Sure, making the same record again will actually please the people who liked that first record and don’t like change. And artistic adventure be damned if the alternative is throwing everything up in the air and just hoping the audience you built – no matter how big or small – comes with you when you’ve only been around for five minutes. People are fickle and nothing can be relied on, even if you’ve been around for half an hour. Ask Katy Perry.
But that doesn’t mean you actually gain in the medium-to-long term by repeating the routine, especially if that routine is a revival of a style decades-old already: the potential buyers aren’t exactly lacking for options in the genre. If nothing else, if you’re taking note of the people who influenced you you’ll see they moved with their times and sometimes ended up in quite surprising places, with an audience.
To that end, here’s what Bridges has kept: his brushed, high vocal tone; light lyrics that brush against commentary ever so slightly; soul roots; a clean, almost slick sound where sweat is brushed away quickly; excellent clothes; not much sex.
What Bridges has brought in: 1980s R&B rhythms; ‘70s soul smoothness; some jazz guitar and Al Jarreau-style jazz pop; more prominent guitar (played as rhythm not lead though); more songs with stark arrangements.
The weaknesses are most obvious in the middle of the album when Forgive You and Lions are pleasant moments of easy soul pop which have brief moments of urgency (Forgive You) and some Bell Biv Devoe free forming (Lions) but don’t really add anything to the suggestion that this is what Ed Sheeran would offer if asked to write a song for him.
The strengths are clear enough though, especially on the dancefloor. There’s Bad Bad News, a slyly propulsive groove of a song with a George Benson-was-here guitar solo, which builds the bridge between Curtis Mayfield and early Doobie Brothers, between the nightclub and the yacht (rock) if you will. You Don’t Know is lifted straight from the soul revival of the early ‘80s (good suits, naturally; synths rather than organ; the feeling that the filmclip would/should feature big hair and some strutting around a stylised inner-city block). Then If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be) is what danceclubs were doing just before disco took over and firmed up those beats: finger-snapping pace, two-stepping rhythm guitars, bass just behind the beat.
Even once you’ve come home from the club there’s value to be drawn from the new Bridges. It’s hard to say no to the Stylistics-like caressing tone/falsetto-enriched/mellow angels backing vocals/strings-harp-and-clear-piano of Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand. The way Mrs takes its cues from both Sam Cooke and Prince in ways to seduce means it ends up, well, quite seductive. And the slightly tougher, jazz-fuelled Georgia To Texas is a reminder that even a resolute optimist isn’t going to forget that the world isn’t colour blind.
If it’s still clear that Bridges is a songwriter in development on his second album, it’s also clear that he isn’t stuck on a single lane musical road. And that’s a good thing.