Leon Bridges Brings Southern Soul Into the 21st Century
Tenacity is rooted in the soul of the South. She’s there in the grain and determination of the song, in the patiently rolling grooves, in the way her down-to-earth stories unfold. It’s there in the way the music clings to blues and gospel roots tied to deeper African ancestry. And it’s there in the way the sound persists and adapts over the decades, finding new rhythms but still testifying from the bottom of my heart.
“Gold-Diggers Sound”, the third album by Texan songwriter Leon Bridges, offers his personalized survival strategy for southern soul. Bridges sings his classic themes in songs that take their time and revel in a natural, unvarnished song. He promises sensual romance in “Magnolias”, cheats (with Atia’s duet voice “Ink” Boggs) in “Don’t Worry About Me” and asserts his faith in “Born Again”. Around him, the music uses synthetic textures, programmed rhythms and surreal overlays to carry a decades-old tradition into the 21st century.
“Sweeter,” which Bridges released in June 2020 after George Floyd was murdered by police, draws the mercy from mourning. The narrator is a dead man with his mother, sisters and brothers weeping over him. “I thought we were past darker days,” sings Bridges, to a trap rhythm and the measured chords of Terrace Martin’s electric piano; he adds: “Someone should hand you a crime / Because you stole my chance to be.”
“I cannot and will not be silent anymore,” Bridges said in a statement at the time. “Just as Abel’s blood cried out to God, George Floyd cried out to me.”
Bridges, 32, has made his way into soul music history. His debut album, “Coming Home” in 2015, featured a singer who was returning to an era long before he was born. His voice was reminiscent of the sweetness of Sam Cooke and the grain of Otis Redding, and his music was decidedly revivalist soul of the 1960s. Bridges moved the timeline forward with “Good Thing” in 2018, invoking the R&B “quiet storm” of years. 1980s and 1990s neo-soul. Both albums hit the Billboard Top 10, but they left the impression that Bridges was still doing genre studies, trying out established styles.
“Gold-Diggers Sound” – named after the Los Angeles studio where the album was made – is more decidedly confident. All his songs are midtempo or slower, often bordering on languor. Nate Mercereau’s electric guitar vampires, gently coiled and loaded with reverberation, turn many songs into meditations, and all tracks, no matter what goes beneath the surface, rely on Bridges’ vocals. While the writing credits are full of collaborations – including pop song doctors like Dan Wilson and Justin Tranter – the songs feature Bridges as a lonely figure in a desolate, pleading, and promising space.
Bridges and his producers, Ricky Reed and Mercereau, clearly heard the slow grooves of D’Angelo, Prince, R. Kelly, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. But there is another melancholy side to Bridges’ songs and his voice: less confidence, more pain.
He is still a good talker, offering his lovers not only pleasure but also a deeper empathy. In “Motorbike”, on a calm, African-tinged groove, he insists: “Don’t mean no pressure / I just want you to feel good.” A guitar vamps serenely in “Details” as he worries that a partner will find someone else; he reminds him how much he pays attention to “What you look like in the car when I’m driving a little fast / How you pause when talking when you try not to laugh”.
Throughout the album, Bridges dares to admit how needy he is. “Why Don’t You Touch Me” has the kind of rippling, rippling backdrop that another singer might use for a low-key come-on. But Bridges’ song sees the passion ebb from his relationship, wonders what he could’ve done wrong, and ends up begging, “Girl, make me feel like I want / Don’t leave me here unsatisfied.” And Bridges ends the album not with romantic bliss, but with “Blue Mesas”, which confesses a lingering depression that has not been changed by success. It’s a contemporary choice – unexpectedly in line with the somber rap vocals of songwriters like Polo G and Rod Wave. For Bridges, the story of the soul is still ongoing.
“The sound of the gold diggers”
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