Gold-Diggers Sound (Sony)
Leon Bridges has always shown due respect to the past. That’s what elevated him above the accusations of pastiche and appropriation when he smoothly sashayed in six years ago.
From the dapper threads and step-perfect moves, to the strong feel of the church and his sublime high, vulnerable but supple vocals, he nailed the tone as much as the sound of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s birth of soul. The songwriting was not as strong, certainly not as consistently, but when it hit the mark it was unfussily appealing.
There were other influences but the shorthand had him as a man who hadn’t realised that Sam Cooke and his style had been dead 50 years. Which, post-success carping notwithstanding, was a pretty bold style to assay midway through the second decade of the 21st century when no one – absolutely no one – at major labels was demanding “sign me an old school gentle soul singer”.
Gold-Diggers Sound shows Bridges’ fidelity to and respect for the past remains. It’s just that the past is a little more recent.
For Sam Cooke we now can substitute Boys II Men, the ‘90s vanguard of the boy band revival, but more importantly a vocal group whose own fidelity – in high fidelity – was to a style of singing long passe: the harmonising vocal groups who came out of church traditions, like Cooke’s Soul Stirrers, Motown’s close quarters pop, and the smooth layers of voices from Philly soul groups in the 1970s.
So Bridges set his new songs on burbling, electronic bass lines, keyboard-led arrangements and synthesised strings and other adornments. Beneath them the rhythms move between lovers’ grooves of slow seduction/quiet sadness (the bulk of the album), and a few mid-tempo dancers that suggest smooth spins and shoulders more than hips. And across it all are his effortless and attractive, if not always outstandingly individual, vocals that bring elegance over urgency at every turn.
Why Don’t You Touch Me is all tears-and-regrets: slightly trembling vocals, the suggestion of fingers snapping and head hanging low, the sound of an old phone ring tone emphasising that once someone might have made this to be played on, or to, an answering machine. (Kids, ask your parents.) And at all times you know the clothes are sharp, the hair neat. Likewise, Details, its keyboard bass a heartbeat practically coming through his shirt, lets its finely detailed guitar make forays that the warm brass follow-up, but always feels like something being held close.
On the other hand, coming on the heels of a slowly building Motorbike that pushes its beat forward for consideration rather than domination, Steam takes its dancing electric and synthesised guitars and moves up the pace enough to undo jacket buttons and show off the polish on your shoes. And late, Don’t Worry nods as much to Motown’s boy groups as Boys II Men did – which is to say, a lot – before letting a smooth blues guitar set up the song’s last, brassy, third.
The flaw in the otherwise spot-on deal for Bridges remains a shortage of clear brilliance in the writing – musical and lyrical. Everything else, not least his caressing voice, is there to help make him a current figure of substance, not just a referential one. Not in the same league as Michael Kiwanuka, sure, but maybe next level down.
But then again everything else is there in Leon Bridges in sufficient quantities to make the waiting for the rest to catch up an enjoyable time. And you have to respect that.