By Alex Szeptycki
Leon Bridges is the master of soft sensual tones, particularly when he intermingles the romantic and the steamy.
There’s a vintage sheen to Leon Bridges’s music. The key is his exceptional voice, smooth and honeyed. His insinuating vocals are effortless, as if they are as natural as breathing. This ease resonates with classic rhythm and blues, and Bridges takes advantage of this in his production. Soft, understated, and funky instrumentals evoke a sort of nebulous nostalgia. This is music that could have been made 40 years ago — or yesterday.
Indeed, nostalgia is the first word that comes to mind when listening to Bridges’s new album Gold-Diggers Sound. And, for the most part, this return to the past makes for an enjoyable listen; Bridges’s performances are excellent as is the subtle coloration of the production. Admittedly, the lack of originality proves to be limiting but, even with that in mind, Gold-Diggers Sound succeeds because it puts the superb talents of Bridges and collaborators on full display.
From the start, Gold-Diggers Sound announces itself as an exquisitely crafted album. The
production is the star, tying the album together with delicacy. Producers Ricky Reed and Nate Mercereau accentuate Bridges’s voice by surrounding it with sinuously nuanced instrumentals. On “Magnolias,” gently plucked guitar strings underline Bridges’s introductory crooning before they mesh, unexpectedly, with bassy trap drums. As the song progresses, delicate hits from a horn add unexpected depth. The producers pull a different trick on “Steam.” This track is all about its hook: the cadence Bridges takes up as he sings “Let yourself in, you got the key/You know you know you got a hold on me” is made all the more hypnotic by the syncopated chords that strike in between his pauses. Gold-Diggers Sound is made by nimble moments like this: small flourishes and details bring remarkable heft to the album.
The quietly brilliant production brings out the best in Bridges, who displays a remarkable amount of restraint. Many vocalists with his talent are content to blow the listener away. But he wows by turning down the volume, drawing you in. On “Born Again,” the opener, Bridges delves into his own spirituality. Muffled piano opens the song as Bridges sings “closing my eyes, I feel closer to you/I find peace in the valley of your truth.” Then, the song bursts into life/ “Feeling born again/your love will last forever,” he rasps. Funky drums and horns courtesy of Los Angeles arranger and virtuoso Robert Glasper fill the space. It’s a gentle beginning, representative of a sound that will lull the listener in for the next 10 tracks.
Bridges quickly moves in a different direction on “Motorbike,” perhaps the disc’s standout. The singer is sultry and flirtatious, a mood that he’ll keep up for most of the other tracks. “We don’t stop but the time do/Lovers in another life let me remind you:” he’s playful as he asks his lover to run away with him, to choose love and escape to freedom. “On the back of my motorbike/Write your name in the sky,” he sings over syncopated drums and gossamer horns. The volume may be low, but there’s enormous richness and depth of sound here, both in Bridges’s voice and his accompanists.
This restraint can, at times, dip into monotony. Bridges’s hushed tones captivate, but they are rarely offset by more intense moments. For the most part, this repression works — Bridges’s vocal intimacy is one of his major strengths. But at some point, the tracks can bleed together, especially when listened to back-to-back. “Details” and “Sho Nuff,” two woozy sex jams, have their moments. But woozy is woozy, even when it is multiplied twice. Bridges is the master of soft sensual tones, particularly when he intermingles the romantic and the steamy. Both tunes are engaging enough, but Bridges wears out his tranquil welcome.
Still, despite the brief dips, Gold-Diggers Sound is Bridges’s most thoughtful album to date, an attempt at creating a cohesive sound and theme. Stopping time is a recurring motif in the tracks, popping up frequently in different contexts. Often, the idea is used to embellish the sensual ambience. The line “We don’t stop but the time do” on “Motorbike” spices up the tune’s escapism. In other contexts, ending time becomes off as mournful. “Like a broken watch, stopped givin’ you time,” sings Bridges on “Don’t Worry,” the words of a lover who is seeking forgiveness from one he has slighted.
The most compelling meditation on time comes near the end of the album, with the song “Sweeter.” It’s a reflection on the state of the world, and Bridges keeps coming back to one question: why has there been no progress? “Hoping for a life more sweeter/instead I’m just a story repeating,” he opens. Terrace Martin’s saxophone sounds elegiac, a mood buoyed by bluesy drums. It’s the perfect backing for Bridges’s sad ruminations: “I thought we moved on from darker days/Did the words of the king disappear in the air/Like a butterfly?” Bridges is frustrated with American stagnancy, and the tune serves the message perfectly.
This turn to melancholic introspection on Gold-Diggers Sound moves Bridges into new thematic territory, beyond the impeccable performances and sultry tones. “Blue Mesas,” the album’s closer, is unlike anything the singer has made before. He grapples with his uneasy relationship with fame. “Ain’t no peace at the top,” he mutters as ominous violins open the track. Bridges probes this fear, becoming vulnerable. He even questions if fame is worth the effort, singing “killing myself saying these words/there’s a hurting deep down in my soul.” It’s a welcome step forward for the singer, one that is matched by his embrace of lyrical imagery. Indeed, “Don’t Worry” may stand as the singer’s best songwriting to date. The six-minute funk epic is a masterpiece of storytelling, as Bridges and collaborator Ink tell the tale of a broken relationship via an alternating call and response.
Bridges has never been short of talent. His singular voice, with the right material, will always be compelling. And that means there are times when it feels as if he is coasting on his gift. Why grow artistically when you don’t need to? Even his recycling can be spellbinding. Luckily, on Gold- Diggers Sound Bridges is not content to rest on his laurels. And when he is interested in a challenge, his music becomes even more captivating.
Alex Szeptycki is a writer from Charlottesville, VA. He recently graduated from Stanford University, majoring in American Studies with a focus in contemporary art and pop culture. He’s currently working as a freelance writer at the Arts Fuse while navigating post-grad life in a pandemic.