I was listening to KCRW one day last summer (Anne Litt’s show, if I’m not mistaken) and I heard the song “Smooth Sailing” by Leon Bridges. In a bit of serendipity, it was daytime with clear skies; perfect weather for both windows to be rolled down and blare good driving music. I made a note of the song and artist and a couple of nights later when I looked online to find the album from which it was on I was startled to discover that the album hadn’t been released yet; that Leon Bridges was a new artist; that this album was his debut; that Bridges was a twenty-something kid. I had assumed that “Smooth Sailing” was an obscure ’70s soul track, possibly a decade or two older. This dude was a revelation: someone who sounded as if they were raised on Sam Cooke and Otis Redding from inside the womb, someone who breathed a different life into Muscle Shoals and Stax influences, someone, in short, I’d been looking for my whole adult life because I was not alive to experience those artists in a present tense.
I bought Bridges’ debut album Coming Home a couple days after its release and was just thoroughly blown away. The album opens with “Coming Home” and, just… goddamnit it’s perfect and beautiful. It starts with a gunshot drum that sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral equipped with Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” mono aesthetic. It sets up the soulful gospel sound of the track: slow drumbeats, an organ, woo-ing background singers, and Bridges’ old school touches on guitar. Bridges’ vocals are nothing short of stunning and inspired. He commands attention so effortlessly, like a poet reading their own greater works. Whatever Sam Cooke and Otis Redding had, this guy’s got, but unlike his forbears, he gets to experiment and perform within a wider boundary of time and influences. Otis and Sam only had about 40 or 50 years of recorded music to work with and draw from, whereas as Bridges has an additional 45 years at his disposal; he can sound old school one song and then the next sounds more modern (even wrapped up in an older genre). Otis and Sam set the table but Leon Bridges has proven himself, with one album, to be someone who looks like they are more than capable of sitting at it.