Many writers in the music blogging world (myself included) look for artists who bring something new to the table. Innovation has become synonymous with greatness and legacy-building. It makes sense, too: innovators are essential to building the history and sound of music. Artists like Kanye West, The Velvet Underground, and Brian Wilson deserve all the praise that they receive because they influenced countless musicians and changed the way that audiences listen.
Normally, an artist who copies another's style gets deemed "fake". Not that some don't deserve this title, but there certainly are artists who we should celebrate even if they haven't found their own voice yet. My best example of an artist like this is Leon Bridges.
Leon Bridges is unashamedly old school. The Fort Worth guitarist wears suits when he performs and is only a DA away from looking like Otis Wiliams of The Temptations. All of his photos are black and white. Most importantly, his musical style comes straight from the 50's. With his pure voice, Bridges' meshing of the blues, southern soul, doo-wop, and gospel make him sound like Sam Cooke reincarnated. It's very early in his career -- he only has three songs on Spotify -- but his potential is evident.
“Coming Home” is how my roommate Caroline introduced me to Leon Bridges. It has a standard blues beat and doo-wop background singers that make way for Bridges' voice -- and good lord, this dude can sing. His voice isn’t made for belting at arenas like Robert Plant or James Brown; instead, it's smooth and effortless. Sam Cooke and Billie Holliday flourished in this same style for their whole careers. It's a sound that conveys emotion as effectively as any wail or scream. The “baby, baby babe” vocal riff that opens the song, which perfectly translates the passion he has for this girl, is proof of Bridges' emotional power.
His songwriting isn't shabby either. He tends to stay away from rhyme schemes, which actually makes his music sound more genuine. Check out this verse:
If you want to leave me all alone now
By myself, I don’t want nobody else
The world leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, girl
You’re the only one that I want
He somehow manages to come across as infatuated and jaded, which is no easy feat. Whether this song is playing out of a jukebox at some diner in 1958 or from a bluetooth speaker in my room in 2015, the message is timeless: there’s much more to life when someone you love is sharing it with you.
The downside of having a clean voice is that it fools the listener into thinking the artist has an equally clean image, which can make said artist seem as boring or one-dimensional. If you think Bridges is too clean cut after listening to "Coming Home", listen to “Better Man”:
That's right, fam: the character in Bridges' song is unfaithful! But much like John Legend did in Get Lifted, Leon Bridges is able to make the listener root for the adulterer. He’s been spending his nights “out till the morning” and has been chilling with “them Jezebels under perfume sheets”, and in terms of scumbags he one of the scummiest. Yet, he knows he fucked up and is willing to "swim the Mississippi River/ If you would give me another start.” That is 2,320 miles of reparation. As someone who swam competitively from the age of six, swimming a mile without a break is a real struggle. TAKE HIM BACK, UNNAMED FEMALE COMPANION!
“Lisa Sawyer” is my early favorite out of Bridges' first three. It’s an ode to one of the most important women in his life: his grandmother. Yes, this song is the sound of listeners across the country having their hearts melt.
The strong admiration and appreciation he has for his grandmother is exemplified by the otherworldly vocal run he sings throughout the piece. Meanwhile, the lyrics are just as sweet. He describes Lisa of having “the complexion of a sweet praline/Hair long as the sea/ Heart warm like the Louisiana sun/Voice like a symphony of the most beautiful instruments.” When I die, I would LOVE to have someone write something like that about me. I don’t even know what pralines are, but I bet they’re really nice!
[Ed. note: This is a praline. They are, indeed, really nice.]
It also has this verse, which is the real reason why I'm buying crazy amounts of Leon Bridges stock:
Never had much money, money
But was filthy rich
With the wealth you couldn’t get from a dark casino or a lottery ticket
They had love, love, love
Rich in love
It's a beautiful gesture to his family which demonstrates his strongest similarity to Sam Cooke: his music comes off as genuine and thoughtful.
Leon Bridges is not Sam Cooke yet, and may never get there. He's not the inventor of soul music. He hasn't put out 30 US Top 40 hits (hell, he hasn't put out one). He didn't write "Change is Gonna Come", one of the most important politcal songs ever. But the intimacy and honesty in Leon Bridges' sound and lyrics are hauntingly similar. He may not have his own voice yet, but he has all of the tools to find it and become a truly special musician.