Leon Bridges Put Aside the Old School Pop-Soul and Dropped one of the Best R&B Moments of 2021
Evan Dale // Oct 11, 2021
It was on July 23 when Leon Bridges released his much-anticipated Gold-Diggers Sound, named for the studio where it was recorded. The album – his third masterful solo delivery since his debut, Coming Home, first shined the Fort Worth-born old-school reminiscent Soul singer in open-mic stage lights quickly turned limelight – is a stark change of pace for one of the last half-decade’s most consistent musical forces. His epochal defiance, both musically and fashionably, has long made him a transcendent enigma across the soundscape and across the musical front lines of fame, inexplicably crafting rangy music that explores a century of vocally dominated, Southern-rooted Soul, and wrapping it all together with penny-loafered, James Brown Conked, bell-bottomed swagger that, too, defies both time and place. And yet, it feels so apropos and of this contemporary moment. Something about it always has, but nothing lasts forever.
Leon Bridges was simply gifted with – and also worked incredibly hard to refine – one of those auditory aesthetics that defines an era of vocalists by acting as its impossibly silky smooth bassline. In a modern mosaic spectrum of retrofuturistic Neo-Soul crooners, 90’s reminiscent R&B revivalists, and new age, electro-nuanced experimentalists that together round out a generation of Soul-sourcing artistry that will someday be remembered as its own golden era, Leon Bridges, through his first two albums, was nothing if not undyingly consistent. His soulful bellows and emotive high notes fill the room – fill a listener’s cup – with warm, brassy emotion, while something even deeper in his sound has always flooded a listener’s mind with memories of their grandfather’s vinyl collection. His sensational register hovering overtop acoustic riffs, tambourine-tinged basslines, and addicting choral-backed hooks that take a listener straight to Sunday service; straight to the 1950’s and 60’s, has long been his signature. Listen to any number of radio-waving hits from his first two projects like River taken from his debut, or Beyond from 2018’s Good Thing, and hear that retro nuance roar. And then listen to Gold-Diggers Sound, and hear something entirely new.
Out with the saloon piano, in with the playful key progressions. In with Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper, along with Nate Mercereau and Ricky Reed who oversee the album’s production at large. And with the legendary composer-producers, in, too, with the modernity of hip-hop basslines, jazzy composition, digitally perfected production, and subsequently, a new sound of Leon Bridges – something more stylistically aligned with Funk and Rhythm and Blues than influences from the earlier decades that his foundation was built upon. A modern sound for an artist whose defining charm was always needlessly sounding like he just thwarted forward through a time machine.
In the Summer of 2020, in global response to calls for racial justice, Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin first teamed up for Sweeter. The socially motivated anthem beckoning with pleads for a sweeter life, was also the leading single off Gold-Diggers Sound that would surface more than a year later. And through the entirety of the album, the initial influence from Terrace Martin – an initial direction rooted in a new chapter of an old fight – rings true. Modern and motivated.
Gold-Diggers Sound opens ceremoniously and pointedly to the tune of Born Again, brimming with Glasper’s jazzy keystrokes and brass-backed breakdowns; brimming with the emotionally jarring croons of Leon Bridges and his crystalline register. And forward from that opening moment, Bridges holds true to the tenet of taking it all in a new direction. At first reminiscently conjoining his soulful backdrop with late 70’s funk of Steam, he and his band embody a roller-skates-on-the-dancefloor aesthetic that’s one of the most danceable anthems of the year. And then, starting with the addicting guitar riff and sultry cadence of Magnolias – which itself hits a silky climax at the 2:45 mark where featuring soulstress breaks it all down – Leon Bridges gets all of us in his R&B fueled feels for a three-pack of tracks in the heart of the album. It was never going to be fair if the timeless, irreplicable tone of Bridges’ voice decided to put aside the old-school pop Soul and craft one of the best contemporary Rhythm and Blues moments in memory, and that’s exactly what ensues through the detail of Details. Like Magnolias, still holding true to the analogue instrumentation of his timeless roots, Details, too, finds its sweet spot in an addicting riff meeting head on the suave Soul of Bridges’ own signature. It’s contemporary R&B crafted with the timeless vision that Leon Bridges always brings to the table, and it’s as good as it sounds. Sho Nuff – with the backdropping hum of basslines tinged with organ chords, the same old-school aesthetic done oh, so necessarily new, again thrives.
Through the final three tracks, too, Leon Bridges continues to prosper in his new wave. And wholly, from start to finish, Gold-Diggers Sound may be his most relevant collection to date if for no other reason than its contemporaneousness and bold reinvention of self.