There’s a reason why this music was popular. It makes you twist. It makes you groove—in glee and in sync with the pulsing rhythms. It makes you yearn and feel and long.
There’s a reason why this music is coming back today. It makes you think. It makes you escape—from the workingman and woman blues, but also from the racist, extremist madness brewing in Charleston and around you when you can’t, by the grace of God, figure out how to stop it.
For 25-year-old Leon Bridges, the comparisons to Sam Cooke are inevitable because of this music. The young R&B singer and guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas fashions himself in only the finest vintage threads, and takes obvious aesthetic influence from Mr. Soul. The cover of Coming Home features the same color scheme, posture and imagery as Cooke’s 1964 Ain’t That Good News. But more importantly, Bridges sounds like the 21st century reincarnation of Cooke, with his smooth, soulful croon directly out the turbulent times of the early 1960s.
Bridges sets the timeline in “Lisa Sawyer,” an endearing biographical ballad for and about his mother. “She was born in New Orleans / New Orleans, Louisiana / branded with the name Lisa Sawyer / circa 1963,” he speak-sings. But 1963—the year of Cooke’s legendary performance at the Harlem Square Club in Miami, from which Bridges attributes his evocative live performances—is also the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In fact, cousin and activist Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana shortly thereafter. And so with the obvious time-stamping and subtle musical odes to decades long past, it’s easy to feel transported back to that bygone era, especially within a week when too-similar acts of hatred fill our television screens in the same way as they did in 1963.
But, Coming Home came together so quickly, and in such a modern fashion. Just months ago when “Coming Home” first appeared on the internet, Bridges still haunted dive bars and coffee shops in North Texas. But by February, the title track landed on Spotify’s Top 10 Most Viral Tracks and soon after, legendary major label Columbia Records swooped him up onto their roster.
With all the hype and fast tracking to fame, it’s astounding that the rest of the Coming Home holds up to such unreasonable expectations. Bridges pays homage to an era so judiciously and so personally that it’s hard to fault him as derivative. The horns throughout Coming Home augment the bass and the swing of the record. In “Better Man” the boasting, bursting sax trades lines with Bridges who begs, “What can I do, what can I do to get back to your heart? / I’d swim the Mississippi River if you could give me another start, girl.” Just as the cooing female background singers contribute “doo-wop’s” in that song, the deep brass plays the sonic equivalent of that swinging vocal touch in the following sultry track, “Brown Skinned Girl.”
And yet, Bridges still manages to inject a few outside influences into Coming Home. “Smooth Sailin” almost veers into surf-rock territory. And elsewhere, the staccato horns in “Twistin and Groovin” (which, according to a Twitter comment from Bridges, is about how his grandparents met) dare to match the intonation of a ska band.
But like his gospel predecessors, Bridges imbues Coming Home with religious and spiritual overtones. In “Shine,” he begs the Lord to forget his past sins. “River,” however, borrows baptismal imagery to tell a journey story of travel, trials and repentance for transgression, amidst a choir of sopranos.
So Coming Home, however unintentionally, represents the spiritual cleansing and soulful healing we need right now. It’s the sound of an era where civil rights seemed so desperate, but progress also felt in reach. And if Coming Home can incite those memories and connections, maybe it could also serve as the soundtrack for a better future in which a change might come, after all.