Retro soul artist/high-waisted pants enthusiast Leon Bridges’s debut album, Coming Home, will not be carried at Starbucks when it drops June 23. The Seattle coffee chain stopped carrying CDs earlier this year. Otherwise, Bridges would make a perfect candidate for a “fresh and new” artist whose music goes down easy with your overpriced, sugar-laden coffee drink. Forget that the 25-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas, owns a top-secret teleportation device that allows him to travel between 1965 and the present without any ill effects.
On Thursday, Bridges officially released his fourth song, “River”, and all snark aside, don’t be surprised if it leaves you slack-jawed and misty-eyed when you hear it. It’s the kind of song that would sound good in a park, in a church, in a car with the windows down, pretty much anywhere you can imagine. Bridges could be this year’s Sam Smith (or yesteryear’s Sam Cooke). I know, I know. It sounds too good to be true: the idea of a black man, not a white man, stealing the sound of the black ghosts of R&B past and becoming famous for it. (Couldn’t put the snark aside for long, it seems.)
“River” debuted in its recorded format this week on a Beats By Dre commercial featuring NFL first round pick Marcus Mariota. You can watch live footage of him performing the song at a Chevy Music Showcase in the YouTube video posted above this paragraph. Bridges’s Columbia Records signing is already lending him wider exposure than most artists, new or old, could dream.
Make no mistake, his music deserves a wide platform, and is on its way, if his sold-out shows across America are any indication. The four songs I’ve heard off Coming Home suggest it could be one of my 10 favorite records of 2015. It reminds me of sitting on my parents’ back porch watching the breeze pass through the cane field behind their house. There’s a peacefulness, a timelessness, a richness and a goodness – basically, all the nesses – about his sound that touch your ears and your heart when you hear his smooth voice on songs like “Coming Home”, which I professed my love for here and here.
The jaded part of me thinks the prep school in the 60s outfit, the old-timey R&B and gospel sound and even his wedge haircut are all concocted to boost the marketing appeal of Leon Bridges, much like say the Australian rock band Jet threw on leather jackets and ripped off garage-punk bands of yore for monetary gain. It’s hard for me to accept something this pure does not come with strings attached, especially when Beats By Dre, Chevy and Columbia Records are already lurking in the foreground. Does it matter whether this is real or a ruse? I mean, what is real in music today anyway? (Bridges, thankfully, has not started any of his songs with “First things first, I’m the realest” although if he crooned the words I am sure they would sound fantastic.)
My friend, Matt, described Bridges, of whom he is a fan, as “an elaborate piece of performance art” when we discussed his new song Thursday night. He cited the singer’s Instagram page, of which it appears he’s a vampire allergic to light. Only one of his 524 Instagram photos features color. It’s a photo of his Coming Home album cover. His best friend and personal photographer, Erin Margaret Alison Rambo aka Rambo, snapped the majority of the pictures, capturing within him a soul that stepped out of the decade of American political assassinations, hippie infestations and Vietnam.
I don’t view Bridges and see someone trying to be cool or different or hip or whatever word you want to appropriate to an artist forging a path at odds with today’s prevailing sounds and themes (even if that path is one others have trekked two generations prior). On second thought, he forfeited any chance of receiving his cool card two weeks ago on Twitter.
“Great vibes in the studio making soul music with @RyanLewis and @Macklemore,” Bridges tweeted April 15. In one way he jumped the coolness shark, name-dropping two white artists most associated with stealing a Best Rap Album Grammy from a black artist, Kendrick Lamar, and unironically touting the joys of thrift shopping. The other side is Bridges would never have passed for hip, edgy, or underground anyway.
It’s almost edgy how un-edgy Bridges is. He’s a new/old classic, whether in vintage 1965 or 2015, coming to coffeeshop speakers, if not shelves, near you this summer.
P.S. Here’s the Beats ad that uses “River”.