I’ve had the authenticity conversation on numerous occasions. What makes music authentic? Why do we have a tendency to call soul music real? How can a very specific sound grab listeners almost universally? Come on, name one person who can’t get into a Sam Cooke song. While exalting one form of music as more ~real~ than another seems a little silly, there is something undeniably warm and essential about soul. Which is why listening to Leon Bridges is so much fun.
The 25-year-old Texas native has had a monumental year. Bridges, a dancer turned singer, released “Better Man” and “Coming Home” on Soundcloud in 2014 and it seems to have been a quick ascent since. His debut album, out on Columbia, is as sentimental and polished as his first two singles promised.
Coming Home opens with the title track in which Bridges’ opening croons are enough to melt butter in the arctic tundra. Followed immediately by the flawless and pleading “Better Man,” the album begins with a one-two punch. And the hits keep coming. “Brown Skin Girl” is full of saxophone and twangy guitar and “Smooth Sailin’” is a track meant for grooving with tight harmonies leading the way.
“Shine” is a song fashioned at the crossroads of gospel and pop. A lot of Coming Home is tinged with gospel sounds and hymn-like lyrics. While most pop music in 2015 is secular, Bridges uses soul as means of communicating religious ideas in a way that is earnest and inviting without being preachy and uncomfortable.
“Lisa Sawyer,” a song Bridges wrote about his mother, is guaranteed to make you feel like a lousy kid. With its rich saxophone solo and reverb-y back-up vocals, it’s a stunning tribute to his mom. He takes his time with the lyrics, repeating many with added runs and twists. “Lisa Sawyer” is a reminder that our parents had lives before us, and that realization has never sounded sweeter.
“Flowers” is another gospel tune dressed up as classic Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Pull Away” is the necessary track about the end of a relationship. A line like, “My pillow bears a tear,” could have come off as cheesy, but instead Bridges pulls it off with a combination of production and sincerity. “Twistin and Groovin” is pretty much indicative of what you’ll feel like doing when you listen to the track. With a hot sax solo and a steady beat, the song induces nostalgia for juke joints and things we’ve only seen in movies.
The album ends with the transcendent “River.” It’s a gospel track with a full choir, a persistent tambourine and a soft-spoken acoustic guitar. The gentle repetition of “I wanna know, wanna know, wanna know” building from one female vocalist to Bridges and the whole chorus is enough to make anyone a believer for 3:58.
One of the major reasons Coming Home works so well is the fact that soul is inherently nostalgic music. It’s a part of our collective conscience as a culture. It’s the predecessor to rock and modern pop. Soul revivalists are not uncommon, however, Bridges and his very apparent reverence for the entire time period that encompassed soul is a rare bird indeed. When I first heard “Better Man,” I had to Google him to see if the song had been recorded in the 60s. Even his production methods make it seem like the sound is coming from the radio of a ’65 Thunderbird. The album avoids camp and instead creates nostalgia without tiredness. It’s timely in the way that soul always seems to be. In a word, it’s real.