When Leon Bridges captivated audiences at SXSW this year with aurally and visually arresting performances, which earned him the 2015 Grulke Prize for Excellence, the comparisons to R&B and Soul music legends including Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway were widespread. If his debut album, however, will prove anything to sceptics, it will be that while these comparisons have come to be expected, they’re not particularly necessary to define Bridge’s individual sound. His hugely anticipated debut Coming Home is not just informed by retro influences, but is as timelessly powerful as the music with which it coexists. The Fort Worth-based musician delivers a collection of charismatic soul that has the potential to dwell with existing giants.
Launching into Bridge’s effortless, but considered, aesthetic is the album’s eponymous single. Buoyed by delicate backing voices, refreshingly untouched by recording technology, and a shuffling ensemble Bridges croons “Baby, baby, baby I’m coming home to your tender, sweet loving”. The track conjures images of an intimate performance venue, where such a personal message is at its most affecting. Better Man then finds Bridges and a gravelly sax in a more upbeat call-response scenario, as the singer begs his girl to “give him another start” over cooing female chorus of doo-wops.
In Brown Skin Girl Bridges expertly layers vocal harmonies, while Smooth Sailin’ gets bodies out of seats with perky syncopation, punctuating horns and infectious melodies. Shine then delivers the sinners of Saturday night to the altar of Sunday morning as he tenderly asks the Lord for forgiveness over gospel-kissed accompaniment.
The album’s most personal ode is Bridge’s homage to his mother Lisa Sawyer, whose history is lovingly and poignantly described. The complex and beautiful narrative is defined by her birthplace in New Orleans, and the track reveals Bridges’ deep admiration and respect for his mother over a deceptively carefree gospel-pop ensemble. The track is incredibly moving for its deeply personal revelations and endearing affection. Twistin’ and Groovin’ also takes inspiration from Bridge’s familial narrative, detailing the meeting of his grandparents accompanied by rambling, irresistible guitar licks. Gentle closer River finally takes the listener from juke-joint back to the pulpit with baptismal imagery of new beginnings, an appropriate ending for a debut.
Unlike other modern musicians taking part in a deeply entrenched cultural tradition who have added “fresh” or “contemporary” influences to their music, Bridges is meticulously loyal to the genre. This musical faithfulness has caused some criticism that his music is imitation rather than invention, a critique that disregards the commanding endurance and sincerity of his music that stands firmly apart from the bells and whistles of contemporary music production and genre-crossing trends.