Leon Bridges revives soul on ‘Coming Home’

Conor Battles, Editor-in-Chief, Arts & Entertainments Editor

It has been a turbulent year for Leon Bridges.

The 26-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas was a dishwasher at Denny’s this time last year, honing his craft and singing at open-mics and dive bars across Texas on the weekends. It was by miraculous chance that another Texan throwback outfit called White Denim discovered him and recommended him to Columbia Records. By January, the unassuming good-old-boy Bridges had a record deal, studio time, and his first tour under his belt.

In February, “Coming Home,” the lead single off his eponymous debut, dropped to tremendous fanfare. Bridges has chops, that much cannot be denied. He pays tribute to vintage soul so effectively one can scarcely separate him from the Sixties artists he emulates.  A little Sam Cooke, a touch of Otis, and even a smidgen of classic gospel via James Cleveland all find their way into his silky, powerful voice. The instrumentation, from Bridges’ clean, jangly guitar to the plodding bass and resounding horns recall classic soul to a T.

Ultimately, what Bridges has that so many other artists of the current rhythm and blues mini-revival lack is staying power. J.D. McPherson, Nick Waterhouse, and so many other also-rans were just that: flavor-of-the-month novelty acts who dropped a solid album apiece and promptly vanished. Conversely, Leon Bridges has all the potential in the world to be a household name as the years go on. The sheer promise within the tracks on Coming Home show an artist in his earliest iteration, with considerable skill but a lot to learn. Standout tracks like the tender, matronly ballad “Lisa Sawyer,” the grooving, doo-wop influenced “Better Man,” and rollicking album closer “River” are some of the strongest of the year, but when the final note fades out, there is an unconscious understanding that there could be so much more to come.

Where Bridges falls short is in innovation. He so effortlessly and endearingly emulates vintage soul that it becomes difficult to take him seriously as a modern, individual artist, and not just a pandering throwback to a more authentic time. If he wants to get past the sophomore slump that his contemporaries failed to break through, there has to be more personality, more uniqueness. Coming Home is ultimately a fantastic album, positively full of memorable tracks and audience-ready moments, but there is undeniably a lot of room to improve. Leon Bridges could be the best thing to happen to soul since Amy Winehouse, but getting there is a feat on par with swimming the Mississippi River.