Leon Bridges’ debut gave the world a breath of fresh air smacking with classic soulful R&B. Coming Home smoothly grooved through song after song featuring Bridge’s velvet soft voice tackling a range of songs that capture a complex human heart; Coming Home’s greatest achievement is its honesty–a standard of all genuine human expression. You believe that Leon Bridges isn’t a brand or a statement, you know he’s a man; however, for the most part Good Thing lacks this fundamental element.
The new album begins with a similar trajectory to Coming Home: “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand” opens with a shimmering fairy-tale harp which gives way to Bridges’ soaring, soulful, pained falsetto: “I better slow down/’Cause I keep keep trippin’ on words I don’t wanna say.” “Bad Bad News” keeps it going with funky driving drums and a bass-line reminiscent of “Uptown Funk” in its raw ability to summon bodies to the dance floor. These first two songs sound more polished and updated than Coming Home but stay true to Bridges’ soul sound with jazzy guitar parts and call-and-response doo-wop elements.
Lyrically, however, most of the album feels pretty contrived. The one dimensionality of the characters in the songs strikes me most immediately. Bridges uses more descriptive words in the title of “Brown Skinned Girl” from his debut than he does on the entirety of Good Thing; the only word that I found used to describe a woman is “shy,” and even that only means that this nameless, faceless girl feels a little shy about coming over to Leon’s house. “Beyond” tries failingly to go a little deeper: “It’s kinda hard for me to explain/Her personality and everything/Brings me to my knees.” If you can’t explain a girl’s personality any further than that it exists you probably don’t actually know her personality, especially from someone who wrote the line “heart warm like a Louisiana sun.”
I had high hopes for “Mrs.,” a love song about rekindling intimacy in a long term relationship, especially in the midst of fights. The line “You know that I think you’re the love of my life/But lovin’ and hatin’ is such a fine line” possesses an expanse of thematic possibility, but the hook of the song “it only feels good after a good, good fight” reduces the song to shallow comedy.
Rather than seeing an honest man in the majority of this album I see the same dishonest parody of a man that popular culture gives us over and over again: one who, after a few nights of debauchery and womanizing, speaks and acts in cliches to appear sensitive and respectful when in fact that sensitivity and respectfulness really mask a most dangerous form of narcissism: sentimentality. Sensitivity treats a person as a person and leads to an encounter with the individual; it draws you outward and challenges you to live differently according to those values. Truly good art embodies sensitivity–sentimentality, a favorite habit of shimmery commercial pop music, treats a person as a set of emotional values and leads to an encounter with one’s own appetites. Good Thing parades before us girl after girl, none of them with defined faces or background or personality, all of them passive, and subtly turns the focus of the music away from the girls and towards the listener’s desires.
One woman stands out from the rest and highlights one song among its relatively bland companions–Leon’s mother. The muse behind the most beautiful lyrics on his first album (“Lisa Sawyer”) similarly inspires perhaps my favorite Leon Bridges song across both of his releases. A fairy-tale opening introduced the album; “Georgia to Texas’s” solitary brooding stand-up bass signals that we’re in a completely different realm. Bridges wails the Blues in this epic story dripping with nuance about his family, his religion, growing up black in the deep south, and his own path as a man. The real soul of the South shines through “Georgia to Texas”: not sweet tea and barbeque but a land haunted by poverty and persecution striving for a higher ideal. It gets back to the simplicity and honesty which characterizes soul music as a whole and made Leon Bridges stand out among his peers in the first place.
Good Thing isn’t terrible: I’ve caught myself singing the songs in many a shower. But art strives for more than just “not terrible,” it strives for goodness, and the majority of this album doesn’t quite reach that transcendental standard like his debut did. However, in the soulful swell of his voice and particularly the magnificent storytelling in “Georgia to Texas” Leon Bridges promises that we haven’t heard the last from him.
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