Album Review: Leon Bridges – Good Thing

I have seen too many albums come along this year where there was much promise but when it came to the actual result, it lacked acute delivery and fulfilment. I shall name no names but I have seen few big-league artists fulfil their potential this year. The best albums of 2018 have arrived from more unexpected sources and artists that do not grab the same sort of headlines as your mainstream best. There have been some great records this year but, looking around, some disappointments and half-arsed efforts have cropped up. Leon Bridges is, in my mind, one of two artists whose work can deliver on their true promise (Florence + the Machine’s upcoming LP will, surely, also be worth the wait!). My first taste of Bridges was Coming Home, his 2015 debut album that introduced to the world an extraordinary artist with a heart of caramel-covered gold.

Leon Bridges - Good Thing artwork

In a lot of ways, actually, there are comparisons between the Texas-born R&B/soul singer and our very own Michael Kiwanuka. The latter released his debut, Home Again, in 2012 and, in addition to sharing the word ‘home’, both debuts showed promise and plenty of soul but were not the records the creators were truly capable of. Kiwanuka followed his debut with the Mercury Prize-nominated, Love & Hate. That sophomore record delivered what he’d hinted at on his debut: huge, evocative songs and some of the most personal and socially aware thoughts you can imagine. Leon Bridges, on his second album, has recorded a truer distillation of his background, talent and true direction. If Coming Home was a nod to soul legends like Sam Cooke, his new album is a more ambitious and wide-ranging affair. The album allows Bridges to cut loose and explore more of his influences, show greater boldness and build on the confidence he gained from Coming Home’s success. Good Thing is executive produced by Ricky Reed and Niles City Sound. The sound one gets is a more modern R&B flavour – one that retains Bridges’ roots and authenticity.

Three singles have already been released – ‘Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand’, ‘Bad Bad News’ and ‘Beyond’ – and have been given hearty kudos by the likes of Zane Lowe (on his Beats 1 show) and stations all around the UK. The American star-in-waiting is at his brilliant and stunning best right now. ‘Bad Bad News’ is a tremendous cut that personifies the recharged and re-purposed Leon Bridges. The song sounds live and you can tell there are few production layers and baubles. The lyrics are whip-smart and sassy; the vocals mix ice-cool swagger and tender warmth and the backing vocals put a smile on the face. Those vocals (Bridges among the voices you hear) pitch in interjections and asides, chiming in and giving the song a sense of charm and nostalgia. One imagines the vocalists laid back on a sofa with funky-as-fuck hats, leaning into the microphone with a grin on their faces and having the time of their lives. The singles (‘Bad Bad News’ and ‘Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand’ anyway) are among the strongest offerings from Good Thing. ‘Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand’ and ‘Bad Bad News’ are the first two tracks – a hugely strong opening mandate that would leave one to fear a case of diminishing returns in the remaining eight songs…

‘Shy’ has woozy, stop-start electronics and a finger-click percussion that gives the song a mix of classic soul and modern R&B. Bridges’ voice is king and washes right through the mind. Our hero pledges his love and allegiance to a girl. She is shy and hesitant to come around, but our man is willing to be shy with her – he wants to see her and teases her with his down-to-earth refrain and alluring tones. It is a simple and heartfelt track that perfectly transitions from the more immediate and single-worthy opening salvos.

‘Beyond’ brings in acoustic touches and takes the album down into softer realms. Bridges lets his voice dial down to its sexiest and most luxurious. The man keeps the subject matter focused on temptation and passion. He is looking from the shadows and wondering whether this is all real and the shoe fits. He races ahead and wonders whether marriage and children are forthcoming – all of this is getting heavy. As the hero conspires and dreams, he wonders whether it would be foolish not to rush in and go for it. A sense of maturity and patience impresses the listener. With a memorable chorus and a sound that updates the 1970s soul sound of Coming Home whilst mixing in modern soul and gospel, it is a fantastic song that changes mood and direction but keeps the quality right up there.

‘Forgive You’ opens with compacted and far-off percussion, fusing different elements and sensations into a busy pot. Bridges is in investigative mood and pensive in spirit. It is at this point in the album one would like a return to the fun and racing sentiments of ‘Bad Bad News’. ‘Forgive You’ is a great song but sounds a bit too similar to ‘Beyond’ and ‘Shy’; maybe, putting the song further down the order would provide it greater relevance and strength. It does, however, show Leon Bridge is one of the most revealing and confessional songwriters around. Always putting his heart out there and being quick to forgive are qualities that are missing and needed in the music industry. ‘Lions’ and ‘If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)’ take the energy back up and lift the spirits of the hero. The former sees our boy looking to quench his thirst, examining pride and sacrifice. The latter is properly funky and finds Bridges strutting and striking out. It is a gloriously confident and nuanced song that sticks in the memory and gives the album that much-needed kick into fifth gear.

That alacrity and inflamed soul continues into ‘You Don’t Know’, another song that fuses disco, funk and R&B and shows Bridges’ promises concerning cross-pollination and expansive thinking were no lies. It also shows the performer at his best when playing the showman and lover, vibing to the rushing beats and taut bass, and letting his voice swoon, glide and kiss with every twist and turn of the song. ‘Georgia to Texas’ is a fantastic finale that begins with plucked strings and has an eerie, if intriguing, opening. The song, as quickly becomes apparent, is Bridges growing up and being raised in a struggling house. His parents gave their best and the family supported one another. Sensual and rapturous saxophone blends with the jazz percussion and gives the song a wonderful drama and sense of emotion. It is, in fact, the best song on the album: if you are immune to the stun and brilliance of ‘Georgia to Texas’ then you need your ears cleaned out! Good Thing’s final moment is Leon Bridges combining all his talents and strengths into one: a flexible and ever-wondrous voice with observations about his life and plight; that knowledge of soul, jazz, R&B and funk that all melts perfectly. He is someone who can elevate a song to the heavens and draw the listener into his world. Once you are there, it is a rather intoxicating and special experience!

Anybody expecting a re-run of Coming Home will be a little short-changed (in a good way). Good Thing is a more ambitious and daring work that shows Bridges casting away limitations and writing the music he wants to. He sounds confident and adventurous throughout, there are no real weak spots and, for the most part, he strikes the right notes and compels further listens. Even if there is a bit of a programming query around tracks three and five (maybe a slight reorganisation and separation…) one can move past that. In fact, upon future listens, everything seems right in its place. It takes a few spins for all the songs to flow and resonate. That is no criticism or slight: a record that has immediacy AND reveals new layers after repeated assaults is a rarity in today’s market. Even rarer is an artist who can follow a lauded and celebrated album with something more personal and extraordinary and one that does not succumb to commercial temptations or lazily rehashes what came before. Leon Bridges has produced an album that does not disappoint and shows he is one of the finest voices we have in music. Follow the American with every ounce of concentration and strength you have – this man is going to go very, very far indeed.