When Leon Bridges sings, he often raises his arms in a chest-opening gesture that might resolve in a benediction or a finger snap. Like the music the 25-year-old Fort Worth soul sensation has carefully crafted for his debut, his signature move seems simple, but hold many meanings. It recalls the stance Bridges’ stated role model Sam Cooke frequently took, including his pose on the cover of the 1963 album the younger singer admits is his template for live performance. But the uplifting gesture predates Cooke, being central to the gospel testifying he translated into pop. It’s goes beyond him, also belonging to Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston and Justin Timberlake, to name just a few. It’s a central signifier containing multiple meanings: It’s welcoming but also a form of guarding; a way of opening the chest to gather breath and contain the body to focus on each note; a choreographed moment that seems to spring from pure feeling. It’s imagination in careful motion, a sign of freedom in mastery.
Imagination is the key element that makes Bridges’ rapid ascent more than a novelty. This former coffee house performer and admirer of Usher, working with fellow performing archivists Austin Jenkins and Josh Block of the psych-rock band White Denim, has built what seems at first like an airtight simulacrum of the music made in the year his mother was born. But really it’s a world in a bottle — one so detailed that it truly comes alive.
The year in question is 1963, when not only Cooke rode high, but the girl groups, The Beach Boys and street corner serenaders like The Four Seasons showed how well turned-out song structures could contain and intensify the most unruly youthful emotions. Coming Home presents Bridges and his bandmates dreaming themselves into that moment — a crucial one in pop, when the myth of authenticity that elevated classic rock ruffians like the Rolling Stones into prophets hadn’t yet taken hold and adopting a smooth style and a clever way with words could make you not just a star but a generational spokesperson.
Bridges has been open about the process by which he became a vintage artist. He’s a millennial who educated himself through online listening; he doesn’t even have the dust from record-store bins on his fingers. (He does haunt vintage clothing stores, though.) His mother is what ties him physically to the era his music so strongly honors: One song he wrote, “Lisa Sawyer,” put him on this path, and it’s her story, beginning with her birth in New Orleans and moving through a youth in a poor loving family toward her Christian conversion as a teacher. “Lisa Sawyer,” which features a doo-wop arrangement and a Bridges vocal that’s more Nat King Cole than Cooke, is a son’s expression of respect and bottomless affection, and it personalizes this project in a way that makes all of Bridges’ studied appropriations shine with love.
This happens throughout Coming Home: Bridges wraps his creamy-gritty vocals around memories of Cooke, early Marvin Gaye and gospel groups like the Valentinos as Jenkins and Block do their own creative dance with the legacies of producers like Bumps Blackwell and Smokey Robinson. What on the surface seems like mere replication becomes powerful evocation through extremely well-considered details — Block’s drumming hanging barely behind the beat on the sexy “Brown Skin Girl”; the whispery call and response with background vocalist Brittni Jessie on “Smooth Sailin'”; the contemplative quality the band brings to gospel on the transcendent album closer, “River.” That song is another blatant tribute to Cooke — Bridges was reborn by the river of that man’s music, and he’s determined to give full and constant credit. But the sensuality of Bridges’ lyrics — “dip me in your smooth water,” he sings, “I go in as a man with many crimes, come up for air ” — are both deeply personal and connected to Golden Era gospel in a way that goes beyond mere posturing. The feeling Bridges and his band uncover throughout Coming Home may be “retro,” but the feeling is immediate, and relevant, and profound.