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Leon Bridges' debut album is old timey but also timeless

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

There’s a huge difference between making music that is old-timey and music that is, simply put, timeless.  Leon Bridges, a 25-year-old singer from Fort Worth, Texas, has managed to do both on his debut album, Coming Home (available June 23, stream it above for one week), which is evocative of early ‘60s soul, gospel and R&B, but speaks to themes as relevant today as they were 50 years ago: love, adoration and a longing for happiness both in life and after.

The album was born as an experiment, hatched by Austin Jenkins and Joshua Block, of the Texas rock group White Denim, who acquired vintage amps, microphones and a soundboard from the ‘60s that was previously used by the Grateful Dead, and set up in a Fort Worth warehouse with the intent to record music exactly was it was done in the ‘60s: mostly live, no overdubbing and very little post-processing.

They had the equipment, but just needed the voice. That’s when they met the young Bridges, with his preference for vintage clothing and a voice as smooth as a satin suit. Sam Cooke reincarnated, raised on Usher and Raphael Saadiq but armed with a book full of songs and a mission to introduce his peers to the music from his mother’s generation.

After dabbling in modern R&B and neo soul, Bridges’ inspiration hit, fittingly, when writing a song about his mother, “Lisa Sawyer,” which tells the intergenerational tale of migration, love and hardship.

“She was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Branded with the name, Lisa Sawyer, circa 1963,” he begins, drawing out the vowels while female singers’ provide the distinct “she-bop, she-bop” backing vocals of the era.

He’s admitted that it’s his favourite song, even more so than the gorgeous ballad “Coming Home,” the first release from the album which instantly, and deservedly, earned Bridges comparisons to Cooke and Otis Redding and resulted in a major label bidding war. It’s a song that instantly feels classic, like you already know it but just can’t quite place it, from the unmistakable groove of the rhythm section to the way the background vocals perfectly harmonize with Bridges undying love for his “one and only woman.”

On “River,” the album’s final track, Bridges not only pays tribute to the running river at the centre of Cooke’s 1964 Civil Rights anthem, but also makes his own best case for immortality. A contemplative gospel song stripped down to nothing but a guitar and a tambourine, it tells the story of a lost wanderer looking for salvation. Bridges voice floats above it all so that by the time he’s joined by a choir for the chorus, “take me to your river, I wanna go,” he’s made a convert of us all.

Coming Home is available June 23. Preorder it on iTunes.

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG