Notoriously calm, cool and collected musician (and twenty-first-century dandy) Leon Bridges is stretching his signature soulful sound in more directions than ever before in his third album Gold-Diggers Sound.
Crafted over two years at the hotel-studio-speakeasy complex of the same name in LA, the collection of tracks holds a mirror to the smoke-filled lounges it was conceived in, preferring to anchor its appeal in musicianship and rhythm rather than the development of a strong narrative.
The sun rises along with its warm opening leg, starting with the alluring ‘Born Again’ featuring Robert Glasper. Disoriented at first, Bridges finds a solid footing as soon as the beat kicks in, basking in the same kind of rejuvenating energy found in the more laidback end of Little Simz’ catalogue on our side of the pond. It’s nearly midday when Bridges revs up ‘Motorbike’s engine. The air is hot and dense; chords, synths and drums all condense into the amorphous backbone of the imagined excursion.
The album’s instrumentation is rich and carefully distilled throughout: intentional but not immediately dazzling, it creates sufficient space for each contributor to shine. The stripped lounge-appropriate tapestry of sounds in ‘Details’ feels particularly intimate; instruments take turns taking part in the conversation, respectfully stepping in and out of the composition one after the other. ‘Don’t Worry’ builds in increments through a thoughtful labour of love that taps into Bridges’ natural instincts and Southern roots. Equal parts lovelorn and confessional, we are left anxiously waiting with him for an ex-lover’s return from Corpus Christi.
‘Gold-Diggers Sound’ doesn’t break the mould when it comes to the subject matter. Mostly about love, attraction and adoration (‘Details’, ‘Sho Nuff’, ‘Steam’, ‘Motorbike’) and the flipside if and when things go awry (‘Why Don’t You Touch Me’, ‘Don’t Worry’), the album also provides brief insights into grief and injustice (‘Sweeter’) and fame and solitude (‘Blue Mesas’).
In an effort to modernize his sound and become part of the same conversation as his R&B contemporaries, Bridges occasionally struggles to preserve the timelessness of his music. It’s most notable in ‘Magnolias’, a track torn between several identities: a Spanish guitar ballad, a horn section rehearsing ground, a downtempo trap number… The built-in schizophrenia distracts more than it serves.
On the other hand, Bridges succeeds in leaving the retro behind on ‘Sho Nuff’. The track preserves his smokey croon while boasting a ticking beat, sensual ad-libs and beguiling interlocking supporting female vocals. It’s an occasion where the listener is brought on board, as intricately perhaps as on ‘Why Don’t You Touch Me’ where Bridges gently pleads for reciprocity. The helplessness he emanates (“I’ve been feeling way too undesired”, “If you still in love all like you say it / Then why don’t you touch me?”) marks one of the most memorable and relatable moments on the album; the vocal layering transcends his hurt into communal pain, weaving the listener’s own recollections into his own.
“We been runnin round covered in gas, playin with matches”, sings Bridges on ‘Don’t Worry’ as he kicks off an almost seven-minute long masterclass in songwriting. Through the simplest of storylines, Bridges and Ink capture a feeling with vivid imagery. Ultimately, the longest offering on the album is also the most rewarding; one in which listener and performers become one, blurring the lines so much so that when Bridges sighs “Let your tears roll down my face”, it is not immediately clear whose tears and whose face he is thinking about. The post-break-up anthem suggests that, when writing from experience, Bridges is writing for all of us.