Leon Bridges Brings Southern Soul Into the 21st Century

Tenacity is baked into Southern soul. It’s there in the grain and determination of the singing, in the patiently rolling grooves, in how its down-to-earth stories unfold. It’s there in the way the music holds on to blues and gospel roots connected to deeper African ancestry. And it’s there in the way the sound persists and adapts through decades, finding new rhythms but still testifying from the heart.

“Gold-Diggers Sound,” the third album by the Texas songwriter Leon Bridges, offers his personalized survival strategy for Southern soul. Bridges sings about its classic topics in songs that take their time and revel in natural, unvarnished singing. He pledges sensual romance in “Magnolias,” does some cheating (with duet vocals from Atia “Ink” Boggs) in “Don’t Worry About Me” and affirms his faith in “Born Again.” Around him, the music uses synthetic textures, programmed beats and surreal layering to carry a decades-old tradition into the 21st century.

“Sweeter,” which Bridges released in June 2020 after the police murder of George Floyd, draws grace from mourning. The narrator is a dead man with his mother, sisters and brothers weeping over him. “I thought we moved on from the darker days,” Bridges sings, over a pattering trap beat and Terrace Martin’s measured electric-piano chords; he adds, “Someone should hand you a felony/Because you stole from me my chance to be.”

“I cannot and will not be silent any longer,” Bridges said in a statement at the time. “Just as Abel’s blood was crying out to God, George Floyd is crying out to me.”

Bridges, 32, has worked his way forward through soul-music history. His first album, “Coming Home” in 2015, introduced a singer who harked back to an era well before he was born. His voice recalled the suavity of Sam Cooke and the grit of Otis Redding, and his music was unabashedly revivalist 1960s soul. Bridges moved the timeline forward with “Good Thing” in 2018, invoking 1980s “quiet storm” R&B and 1990s neo-soul. Both albums reached the Billboard Top 10, but they left the impression that Bridges was still doing genre studies, trying on established styles.

“Gold-Diggers Sound” — named after the Los Angeles studio where the album was made — is more confidently single-minded. All of its songs are midtempo or slower, often verging on languid. Gently coiling, reverb-laden electric-guitar vamps, from Nate Mercereau, turn many of the songs into meditations, and all of the tracks, no matter how much is going on under the surface, defer to Bridges’s voice. Although the writing credits are full of collaborations — including pop song doctors like Dan Wilson and Justin Tranter — the songs present Bridges as a lonely figure in a desolate space, pleading and promising.

Bridges and his producers, Ricky Reed and Mercereau, have clearly heard the slow grooves of D’Angelo, Prince, R. Kelly, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. But there’s a different, melancholy side to Bridges’s songs and his voice: less assurance, more ache.

He’s still a sweet talker, offering his lovers not only pleasure but also deeper empathy. In “Motorbike,” over a calmly plinking, African-tinged groove, he insists, “Don’t mean no pressure/I just wanna make you feel right.” A guitar vamps serenely in “Details” as he worries about a partner finding someone else; he reminds her how closely he’s paid attention to “How you look in the car when I’m driving a lil fast/How you pause when you talk when you’re trying not to laugh.”

Throughout the album, Bridges dares to admit how needy he is. “Why Don’t You Touch Me” has the kind of ticking, undulating backdrop that another singer might use for an understated come-on. But Bridges’s song sees the passion ebbing out of his relationship, wonders what he might have done wrong and ends up begging: “Girl, make me feel wanted/Don’t leave me out here unfulfilled.” And Bridges ends the album not with romantic bliss, but with “Blue Mesas,” which confesses to a lingering depression that hasn’t been changed by success. It’s a contemporary choice — unexpectedly in line with the brooding sing-rap of songwriters like Polo G and Rod Wave. For Bridges, soul’s history is still unfolding.

Leon Bridges
“Gold-Diggers Sound”

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