It definitely feels as though Texan-newcomer Leon Bridges was plucked from a smoky blues bar in 1962 and redistributed into the 21st century. In a world where catchy techno-pop beats and shallow lyrics continue to reign, there seems to be just enough room for the revival of retro soul with this new artist. The 25-year-old rewinds time and brings back the old-school with his debut LP, Coming Home.
Reminiscent of Sam Cooke with his 1960s jukebox sound and tender voice, Bridges unapologetically reminds us of a time when soul was preferred to autotune and appreciating women was “hepper” than oversexualizing them. For someone who picked up a guitar only four years ago and found his retro inspirations a year prior (Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Al Green), Bridges hints at simpler times and manages to bring back the twist in a dab obsessed world.
The 10 songs on his debut—obviously influenced by his soulful predecessors—have a heavy gospel and New Orleans presence. This is most evident in the LP’s closer, “River,” with its haunting harmonies and devoted tamborine that make you want to find the river with Bridges by your side. “Coming Home” excites with the warm idea of going home to the “tender sweet loving” you know is waiting for you. The song feels like going on a walk with its strolling drum and slightly out of tune “oohs.” The consistent ease is broken up when the jiving sound of “Flowers” breaks through to reveal a bluesy heritage guitar and freeze tag beat. Each song is a time capsule in and of itself, narrated by Bridge’s graceful voice and complimented by his band’s soft precision.
The old soul and his heritage guitar comes at a time when “white soul” artists have gained more notoriety than their black counterparts. Vintage inspired Adele and Sam Smith—and Amy Winehouse before them—have built their careers on the soul foundation created by black musical pioneers. They have dominated the airwaves, their “unusually” deep soulful voices shocking listeners and propelling their sales forward.
In recent months the topic of cultural appropriation has taken flight with celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, Selena Gomez, (even) Queen Bey, and let’s not forget about the embarrassingly shameful Rachel Dolezal, being called out all over social media for their insensitive adoption of certain cultures.
Cultural appropriation can be a complicated matter but when broken down to its simplest form, cultural appropriation is when members of a group (usually a more dominant group) take on elements of a different culture. Jenner’s expensively plumped up lips and styled cornrows and duck faced selfies captioned “feeling African” have reopened the discussion about what it means to use aspects of a culture without knowing/acknowledging that culture’s history. This issue may seem new to some people, but this practice has been around for a long long time. In fact, the music industry is no stranger to it.
Perfect example: In 1956 a little gem called “Hound Dog” was released by suave newcomer Elvis Presley. Dollies across America went crazy for the song, Presley, and his gyrating hips, all while a young black female blues singer Willie Mae Thornton watched from the sidelines as he profited from her song.
Blues, which dates back to the 1800s, paved the way for jazz, R&B, Rock ‘N’ Roll, and yes, even country. Rising from the swelling rivers of the south, blues became more than just a musical genre, it was a way of life. It created a safe space for black people to express their frustrations with oppression, injustice, adversity, and love. As time went on, white artists (The Beach Boys (“Surfin’ USA”), Led Zeppelin (“Whole Lotta Love”), Robin Thicke (“Blurred Lines”) would cover songs black musicians had recorded decades prior but never broke into the mainstream because of the limitations society put on them. In many ways, Coming Home kind of reclaims soul and blues for the black community. Although Bridges isn’t the only artist playing for Team Soul—there’s Aloe Blacc, Son Little, Andra Day—he definitely seems to be the current quarterback.
In 33 minutes, Bridges reestablishes the black community as the rightful heir to the soul crown, but he also reintroduces the real black man as the one the media so often likes to ignore. With lyrics like “I want to shine like the burning candle” and “worked two jobs to provide for his flock,” Bridges sings away the (lazy, ignorant, angry, cheating) stereotypical black male, redefining him as hardworking, devoted, and intelligent.
Yes, Coming Home is a classic and an incredible introduction to the world for Bridges, but there are moments where his vintage theme focused on romance threatens to be monochromatic and too conservative. He’s consistent, and at times too safe. There are hints at opportunities to go outside of his normal range and play around with runs, further showcasing his chops, but Bridges stays with his “smooth sailin’.” Yet, in a strange twist, his conservativeness manages to go against the grain and prove more radical amongst his loud, sexist, overproduced competitors. Coming Home is a classic rendition of an old time that is proving to be ageless.