Although Leon Bridges is a relatively new voice on the scene (with Good Thing marking his second studio LP), when listening to him it is easy to feel transported back in time. His soulful voice and songwriting deliberately recall the likes of Sam Cooke; Bridges has said that as a young black artist he felt a certain obligation to pay homage to such greats, but in this second album he branches out significantly. Sometimes, rather than seeing Bridges find his own identity outside of his influences, he disappears even further. However, on most of the tracks on this record, Bridges does begin to carve out his own, moving niche.
Songs like Shy exemplify Bridges at his best. The beat feels straight out of a lo-fi hip-hop track: chopped and screwed and with a warm tape fuzz. His vocals carry this warmth through even further, both at his falsetto and the lower ends of his range. Lyrically the track is charming, an ode to the background: “I know you’re shy, you can be shy with me”. The production is sleek but sits in the background, a few tasteful guitar strums and harmonies keeping things fresh without taking over.
This is not the case for every track on the album. Two songs in particular take Bridges’ sincerity and, by layering it in cliché, make it cloying rather than endearing. Beyond is a lovely track in many ways, most notably the transition between its verses and choruses: the way the crescendo falls back to allow the guitar to take precedent is a genuinely moving moment. However, I find it hard to get over the incessant chiming of bells and cymbals in the background. At least for me, it’s a spoonful of sugar too much. I have a similar problem with Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand. Despite being one of Bridges’ strongest vocal performances on the album, and despite its lyrics hitting hard without being too sentimental, the strings and horns feel far too syrupy for their own good. I hate to pick on an album for trying too hard, because I often have a soft spot for the pretentious, but this track in particular feels egregious. The emotions are already there in the song. Why add sweeping harps and bells to try to wring every last tear out of the listener?
Elsewhere on the record, Bridges tries on R&B, Jazz, and more straightforward singer-songwriter numbers. Bad Bad News is an infectious track that at times feels a little by the numbers. In the pre-chorus especially he goes for the Bruno Mars sound so popular these days – initially fun but after a while a little grating. The jazzy guitar runs are a nice touch, but also feel a little contrived at times. Still, not everything has to be groundbreaking; as I said, the track is infectious and fun regardless of these foibles. You Don’t Know hits a similar note. It’s funky as hell, and the keys in the chorus remind me of a disco song that’s been on the tip of my tongue since I first heard this album (someone help me out? for real, send me a message, it’s been bugging me for ages).
Despite all these catchy upbeat numbers, though, Bridges is at his best on tender tracks like Forgive You, my clear standout. The track opens in a fuzz of white noise, lo-fi before a lone piano chord hits. It builds patiently, like its lyrics: “I didn’t make it a thing; your mama didn’t know that I was there. I tried to swallow my pride”. The song is simultaneously heart-breaking and empowering. Despite all the hurt, and despite common sense (“though my friends tell me not to”) Bridges can’t help but forgive. I think it’s a feeling a lot of us can relate to: loving someone so much that no matter what they do to you, you can’t help but give them another chance. But he comes out the other side: “But I want you to know we’re okay.”