Leon Bridges Goes Beyond Retro on ‘Good Thing’

Retro art satisfies and, to some extent, exploits our nostalgic appetites. Anything that has been around long enough acquires sentimental weight. Relics become conduits to a particular feeling, or memory portals to bygone eras. Revivalist artists are often criticized for regression and want of originality. On the other hand, old music in a new context becomes new music, and the recapturing of lost culture might well be considered progress. With soul music having been largely absorbed by hip-hop over the last few decades, and having considerably atrophied in the process, it’s only natural that a resurgence of ‘50s and ‘60s soul, with its live instrumentation and relative lyrical modesty, would be greeted with enthusiasm. And so, we have the phenomenon that is Leon Bridges. The Texas singer, best known for his 2015 hit “Coming Home,” earned high praise and fervent fanfare for his throwback style of soulful R&B music, and is frequently likened to such legends as Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. However, classicism can be a bit hokey, almost like novelty music, and it conscribes the artist to an unsatisfyingly narrow role. Bridges, well versed in music history, has opted to diversify his sound on his sophomore album. With “Good Thing” Bridges continues to deliver plenty of retro fare, but this time the singer also draws from several eras, creating a record that recaptures his signature style, but channels it into different avenues.

“Good Thing” picks up where Bridges’ debut album, “Coming Home,” left off — in the ‘60s — and promptly proceeds to fill in the gaps. The opening track, “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand,” ventures a little further down the timeline, with a lush orchestral treatment reminiscent of ‘70s Motown. It’s a promising overture that effectively showcases Bridges at his most confident. Next up, “Bad Bad News” dons more conspicuously ‘70s furnishings, with jazz-funk guitars and horn bits. There’s a call and response section grounding the sound in longstanding soul tradition.

Songs like “Shy” and “Lions” leap ahead into the strain of soul typified by artists like D’Angelo; in fact, even Bridges’ phrasing recalls D’Angelo. There’s still organic instrumentation, but a percussive minimalism informed by hip-hop, in the style of The Roots. The crisp snares and claps set a tight groove and impart a raw physicality. “Beyond” occupies a sonic space midway between the early ‘90s and the present, and features Bridges adopting a little country twang in one of the album’s most memorable hooks. At one particular moment, he goes full Marvin Gaye with his falsetto.

The ‘80s-influenced “Forgive You” is a stylistic departure that finds Bridges straying from the specifically soul lexicon, into more general pop territory. “If  It Feels Good, Then It Must Be” is a funky, ‘70s-style affair with echoes of Chic’s “Good Times.” The hooks aren’t particularly compelling, and Bridges comes across as slightly out of his element in a moment of forced festivity. “You Don’t Know,” an upbeat, celebratory disco number, further explores this direction to an effect that is a little silly, although a dub vocal treatment lends an interesting element.  

“Mrs” revisits the barebones, deconstructed funk of “Shy” and “Lions,” along with a bit more twang, and assigns Bridges to a more narrative arc, singing the types of expressive, winding melodies that really suit him. He continues in top form through the final moments of the heartfelt retrospective that closes the album, “Georgia to Texas.”

Lyrically, the songs are pretty simple and straightforward, and explore a variety of topics. A recurring theme is fear of commitment, expressed in the lines, “I can’t commit, I can’t make plans / Sometimes the bet ain’t worth the hand,” from “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand,” and in the admission, “I’m scared to death that she might be it / That the love is real, that the shoe might fit,” from “Beyond.” There are plenty declarations of love, and solicitations (“Shy,” “Forgive You,” “If It Feels Good, Then It Must Be.”) The steamy “Mrs” is a lyrical highlight, with some clever, playful wordplay. Elsewhere, Bridges get autobiographical, on “Georgia to Texas,” as well as “Bad Bad News,” on which he calls out haters, and gives himself some props. The album title is drawn from the final lines of the chorus, “They tell me I was born to lose / But I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.” Given Bridges’ climactic delivery, this makes for an exceptionally catchy sound byte, and also serves to capture the underlying positivity that characterizes the album. Overall, it’s a work that demonstrates artistic growth; Bridges has transcended the throwback niche. His new record showcases him boldly dabbling in various subgenres, and while some of these are more suitable than others, “Good Thing” lives up to its name.   

Good Thing” is available May 4 on Apple Music.