Sometimes a song will remind you of another song. It’ll strike as reminiscent; sometimes it’s as a knockoff; sometimes it’s a better compliment to that music which you already listen to. When it comes to American heritage music, the case for authenticity is, as they sang from Motown to the bayou, a long, difficult road.
Leon Bridges’ body of work immediately reminds you of something you heard, at least, once before. His debut album, Coming Home is a compact collection of 10 works — all originals — that are the ghosts of the revered and oft-cited genres of Billboard Charts past. Bridges is an act of several talents. He sings gospel, soul, and rockabilly in the manner and efficiency of the 50s and 60s stars he emulates. A Texan of the Internet Age, Bridges looks as his music sounds: In short, he’s a Sam Cooke simulacrum. His lyrics are anodyne. The instruments he employs as well as the length of his songs are equivalent to those sixty years ago. He is, however, the benefit of excellent studio production skills.
This music, the contemporary blues, soul, funk, and folk is an affair of the genuine mixing with the hit-making. It isn’t enough for Bridges to sound like Al Greene or Big Mama Thorton. That his music apes their sounds is not inherently a bad thing — it’s enjoyable, really — yet, it is bothersome to hear the past so well duplicated. That he doesn’t (or has not yet) done anything new is what makes Bridges troublesome. The music of the 50s and 60s holds such a heavy sway over a certain set of modern artists that they cannot write a tune without criticism from the old guard. (Though the repackaging of music for commercial gain is a perennial industry gambit.) The Black Keys, for instance, who’ve been playing the same songs on every one of their albums, had to turn the blues into pop records in order to succeed. Perhaps, one of the few artists who’s managed to add something new to the catalogue, so to speak, is Michael Kiwanuka, and he’s British.
Bridges has the ungainful status of being both obsessively vintage and couched in the contemporaneous. It is not an enviable status. His music comes off as innocent, unaffected by the complications of life outside of the simpler happinesses and sadnesses of his, and so many other pop singers’, songs. Yet, so long as we enjoy listening to Coming Home, dancing to it, singing along with it, we at once replicates the music he emulates as well as leave the past behind for something so new our grandparents would of payed to have it on their local jukebox.