Leon Bridges’ Retro Soul Style Gets a Modern Makeover on ‘Gold-Diggers Sound’

It’s always a challenge for an artist working on the periphery of a genre to cultivate a strong commercial following while retaining their unique personality — and to not be too well-defined by either. Because he broke through as a soul singer cut from the mold of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding in the era of Usher, T-Pain and The Weekend, one imagines that Leon Bridges spends more time than many of his R&B counterparts contemplating the space that he occupies, and whether that’s “enough,” be that as a financial stake or musical spectrum. Perhaps that’s why his latest album, “Gold-Diggers Sound,” forages new territory than its predecessors, a harmonious balance of the classic-soul sound that first shaped his public identity and a modern songwriting sensibility that may land him on the charts alongside his more mainstream colleagues. 

If, according to Bridges himself, the defining characteristic of his music is an “organic” sound, then this new album hardly violates that aesthetic: working with Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, producer Ricky Reed and others, he creates songs that are slightly smoother and more contemporary than in the past. (You won’t find an army of Swedish hitmakers in the songwriting credits.) That said, there are fewer of the more anachronistic elements that by design previously connected him to the legacy of Cooke, Redding and other ‘60s luminaries. What he replaces them with is a sophisticated sound that doesn’t nip at the heels of current chart-toppers, but it also doesn’t comfortably settle into the nu-soul groove that D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and the revolving lineup of Questlove’s Soulquarians crew turned into boilerplate for grown-up listeners of music called “soul.” 

Reuniting with Reed, who previously worked with Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Fitz and the Tantrums alongside Megan Trainor and even the likes of Jason DeRulo and DJ Snake, Bridges starts slowly but auspiciously with “Born Again,” as Glasper’s keyboards shift underneath his melodies before opening up to introduce a drumbeat that sounds polished and electronic in a way the artist’s music seldom has before. The title hints at his creative rebirth, but in interviews leading up to the album’s release Bridges indicated it more referred to a sense of arrival, and to slow down, a notion reiterated gently in the lyrics (“Sit still, take it slow / Soak it in, even though / I miss the people that I love / But it feels good being alone”). Along with “Sweeter” and “Why Don’t You Touch Me,” he released Track 2, “Motorbike,” as a single, and if its staccato drumbeat evokes Anderson .Paak, he folds his achy voice perfectly into its meandering, romantic grooves, generating heat for lovers in need of a soundtrack for their sunset wine time, or more accurately based on the lyrics, a ride through canyons roads on the back of a refurbished Triumph Bonneville.

Bridges continues his gentle seduction with the beckoning “Steam,” accelerating the tempo to communicate the urgency of his attraction (“Let yourself in / You got the key / You know, you know you got a hold on me”). The song maintains a lineage with Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson, especially one he starts issuing instructions for the dancefloor, but what’s exciting is hearing how comfortable, and eventually eager he is to expand his melodic repertoire as a singer; his cooing lyrics drip like syrup over the beat, echoing that velvet ‘80s Quincy Jones sound, but it feels perfectly natural, as if he hadn’t spent much of his first two records attempting to honor and replicate the formal yearning of a few decades earlier. He then cools the temperature with “Why Don’t You Touch Me,” an uncommon expression of vulnerability as his protagonist wonders why his partner seems so romantically uninterested in him (“I’m dressin’ to thе nines and your eyes strayin’ / Oh, why don’t you touch me?”) If the forlorn tone isn’t foreign to the annals of r&b history, Bridges distinguishes his take on it with this specific point of view, the x-factor that makes him stand apart even when he’s playing in what’s usually someone else’s sandbox.

“Magnolias” is another deep-soul standout build on what essentially sounds like his version of a trap beat, but maybe more accurately builds on the unhurried, bottom-heavy Dirty South sound of Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” complete with marching-band horns. Along similar lines, “Details” leads into a section on the album that feels like a nexus between Dr. Dre’s “2001”-era production and the squeaky post-soul of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” with several tracks in a row that musically juggle hip-hop and R&B while Bridges sweats into the microphone to make listeners sweat at home. “Sho Nuff,” for example, is the kind of song that gives you confidence to woo a shorty in a sundress, and then offers something to listen to later when she comes over for cocktails (“Say my name, say my name / Let it roll off ya tongue / This is what it feels like / When two become one”). But then “Sweeter” comes along and transforms that sound into an expression of incredulity, a call for action, and an elegy for a struggle that would seem incomprehensible if it weren’t so ubiquitous in Black lives.

Terrace Martin’s saxophone is appropriately mournful beneath Bridges’ verses as he sings, “The tears of my mother rain, rain over me,” and the song completes a cycle that honors the mantle, and the legacy, that the singer-songwriter inherited with his success as a ‘60s throwback. That was a time of at least as much cultural upheaval as now, but it was also one where artists threw multiple ideas into their albums, talked honestly about loss and injustice alongside their celebrations of life and love. And it’s precisely that thread that he picks up and weaves into a new tapestry, combining sensuality and social consciousness for a contemporary audience using the building blocks of giants — both formulas and artists — on whose shoulders he deserves to comfortably stand. 

“Gold-Diggers Sound” is named in reference to the studio and living space he occupied while recording the album, but it’s just as appropriate for the timeless value of the nuggets he unearthed while trying to update the persona, musical and otherwise, that he’s crafted. Not only does the experimentation work beautifully, producing some dynamite songs, but it does so in an earnest and effective way that allows him to retain his existing fan base while expanding his appeal to audiences who will love his music just as much — even if they don’t know it yet.

Gold-Diggers Sound” releases July 23 on Apple Music.