#42. Leon Bridges: Coming Home

R&B has come a long way since it originated halfway through the 20th century. Growing out of jazz and blues in the 1940s, the genre grew around artists like Little Richard and Sam Cooke into one of America’s signature styles of music. In the 1970s R&B morphed with funk, disco, and classic rock. By the 1990s, R&B music started to get filtered through the new cultural wave that was hip-hop. This led to the contemporary R&B sounds that developed with artists like Mary J Blige and R. Kelly. In the past decade, R&B has been most closely associated with artists like Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, John Legend, and even Pharrell. And now, after all that evolution, Leon Bridges has brought the genre full circle on his 2015 debut Coming Home.

Coming Home is less of an R&B album in the contemporary sense—it’s miles away from anything Miguel would release. Instead, it harkens back to the gospel- and soul-infused rhythm & blues of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The album’s instrumentation is lifted straight from that era. Background singers punctuate Bridges’ own vocals as saxophones beef up the traditional rhythm section accompaniment. The production also remains true to traditional rhythm & blues, with a warm, fuzzy sound that feels like it's being played through a transistor radio. Aside from alternating between pianos and electric pianos, there is little sonic variation throughout Coming Home’s ten tracks. The album is consistent—both in its arrangements and its impressive retro songwriting—and Bridges’ smooth voice is the glue that holds it all together.

It’s a shame Leon Bridges wasn’t born 50 or 60 years earlier, because many of these tracks would have topped the R&B charts if they’d been released at that time. There aren’t many solos on Coming Home, but there’s plenty of strong instrumental work; a four-bar electric guitar interlude or a saxophone riff sprinkled here and there make the album sound like it's lifted straight out of 1955. Listening to the guitar and saxophone outro on “Brown Skin Girl” is probably the closest we’ll get to traveling directly back in time 55 years.

Coming Home doesn’t take many risks, save for the leap of faith in assuming that people want to hear a rhythm & blues revival album. But there’s no problem with that. The problem is where Leon Bridges goes from here. This is his debut album, so he has the curious luxury of sounding like he’s doing something fresh and new even though his music is rooted in a sound that’s more than half a century old. But if he continues to make more of the same revival music on his sophomore album, it could grow monotonous and stale pretty quickly. However, there’s also not much room for him to evolve his music because we already know what’s behind that door as well—we’ve watched the evolution of R&B music extend 60 years past the style that he’s emulating. Even if he were to push the boundaries of his revival sound, it would still sound stale because those boundaries were pushed five decades ago. The only way for the follow-up to Coming Home to sound fresh is if he takes his period music in a completely different direction from the one it actually took, as if he were recreating the 1960s in an alternate universe. Bridges doesn’t seem poised to do that, so I’m curious to see how he tackles this obstacle (or if he ignores it completely). For the time being though, I’m content with enjoying the throwback sounds of Coming Home.