LEON BRIDGES GOES DEEPER
The versatile Texas soul man’s third LP is his most ambitious and powerful work
Leon bridges is a retro-minded artist who refuses to let the past stay settled. The Fort Worth, Texas, singer-guitarist broke out in 2015 with Coming Home, sounding like earlySixties soul but imagining an alternative Sixties, where soul men were free to proudly belt out a song called “Brown Skin Girl.” 2018’s Good Thing brought on producer Ricky Reed, who’d worked with artists like Halsey and Maroon 5, for a sound that made the Seventies echo into the current moment.
Reed is on board for Bridges’ third LP, which is at once his most modern-feeling and his most exploratory, treating pop history as sonic Silly Putty and emotional glue.
“Born Again” opens with synths that can bring to mind vintage Stevie Wonder, distant kiting horns and a taut, skittering beat, as Bridges sings about the joy of constant rebirth and the solace of getting back to where you’re from — a perfect way to introduce a record that often feels like rootless roots music. Bridges calls this album psychedelic, not in the incense and peppermints sense, but in a feeling that any intimation of place is always in flux, at once earthy and trippy.
On “Motorbike,” his roadhouse guitar ripples in the distance like a mirage, as he croons beautifully about his sweet ride as a metaphor for going far and feeling “whatever you like.”
The music follows that cue. “Steam” is a gorgeous Eighties “Yacht&B” dreamscape. Ballads like “Why Don’t You Touch Me” and “Sho Nuff” feel more conventionally contemporary, but are delivered with a winning light touch, like a low-key John Legend.
Bridges is at his strongest when he strives to make plain his music’s social and political underpinnings. The obvious standout is “Sweeter,” sung in the voice of a black man facing down an untimely death — “Somebody should hand you a felony because you stole from me my chance to be,” he sings with a plaintive urgency over an elegant track just strong enough to carry the weight of his worry.
The song was released last year after the murder of George Floyd, and Bridges performed it at the Democratic National Convention.
Moments like that make the rest of the record feel like something deeper than a series of agile genre moves. It comes through in the way the title of the playalistic “Magnolias” evokes the
South, making its sensual freedom feel more earned, a moment of transcendence as well as ease; and it’s in the way the warm, earthy “Don’t Worry” becomes an offering of solace that is universal as well as personal. The result is music that subtly stretches our world.