Leon Bridges • Coming Home • Columbia • US Release Date: June 23, 2015
R&B is dead right? No of course it isn’t! Sure, the genre may have some identity issues not to mention horrible problems in regards to promotion, but the genre is still alive and kicking…well it’s alive. Usually, when a newbie enters the R&B fold, he’s looking to be the next POPular contemporary R&B star. For Leon Bridges, he’s having none of the contemporary R&B Koo-laid. Bridges is retro-soul through and through, and his debut album Coming Home proves it. It’s not perfect mind you, but this 25-year old definitely has something to offer.
Opener, title track “Coming Home” leaves no questions about Bridges artistic direction – it’s throwback, old school R&B from the get-go. There’s no masking retro-soul in the least, as this could easily pass from the 60s. Is “Coming Home” fresh or new? No, but you could say its refreshing to hear the classicism which Bridges has rejuvenated. Harmonically, the progression is simple, yet sufficiently satisfying.
“Better Man,” like vintage soul, is brief in duration, not even reaching the two and a half minute mark. Short it might be, “Better Man” is good for memorable lyric, “What can I do / to get back to your heart? / I’d swim the Mississippi River, if you would give me another start girl.” The production stands out, specifically the guitar, organ, and horns.
“Brown Skin Girl” bests “Better Man” in length by a minute. Interestingly, the verses are in 12-bars blues format, something definitely archaic by modern day R&B standards. Does it work? By all means, and it helps that “Brown Skin Girl” features pleasant, if simple songwriting. “Smooth Sailin’” is an acoustic guitar-driven number, with an emphasis on the clarity of the sound. The production can be described as tidy and uncluttered, with sparse instrumental fills and nothing ever overpowering Bridges. Bridges never unleashes, always maintaining poise.
“Shine” slackens the tempo and amplifies the churchy, gospel influence. Bridges continues to maintain his cool, which is respectable, but it would also be nice to hear Bridges truly ‘own’ this and infuse more personality. “Lisa Sawyer” is arguably the most authentic song from Coming Home. Why? One reason is that it is about Bridges’ mother, hence adding more of a personal touch that connects with the audience. Musically, Bridges sticks with the script, but lyrically, “Lisa Sawyer” is more complex and sung narratively thanks to great inspiration.
“Flowers” smartly increases the tempo following two consecutive slower records. Though the tempo gives this a lighter vibe, “Flowers” is focused on accepting Christ. It’s heavy in that sense, though in the same token, Bridges states how simple it is (“So won’t you come? / So won’t you come, baby?”). If nothing more, call it a creative means to save souls. One small nit-pick– the bridge could’ve been extended to really amplify the spirit and establish greater authenticity.
On “Pull Away” the long-awaited upper register piano ostinato rears its head – where has it been the entirety of the album? It doesn’t stick the entire time, as the pianist does plenty of clever, though idiomatic things. But this isn’t about the pianist – it’s about Bridges and the song. What’s it all about? Love gone south: “I wanna (pull away) from you / it’s been too long / I wanna (walk away) right now.” Basically, in R&B, we’d call this the “Same Old Song” (catch The Four Tops reference?).
Penultimate record “Twistin’ and Groovin’” is all about the blues. Like “Brown Skin Girl,” its in 12-bar blues form, sticking through the script throughout. “River” concludes the effort with a soulful performance that welcomes gospel back into the fold. Like some of the other songs, the production isn’t overcooked – everything has its place. Is it a bit on the safe side? Yes, but like most of this album, getting to that next level is Bridges next career hurdle.
So how does Coming Home stack up when it’s all said and done? If nothing more, Leon Bridges shows his potential throughout the album. That said too many times this album fails to ascend to the next level, which is biggest area of concern for the gifted Bridges. His appreciation of vintage soul is apparent, but even by aiming to preserve and bring it back to the forefront of music; Bridges must also establish his own distinct voice beyond reviving a style. Still, at its most basic, Coming Home checks off the boxes it’s expected to.
Favorites: “Coming Home,” “Brown Skin Girl,” “Lisa Sawyer,” and “River”