Searching for the still small voice that dwelt within the soul of early rock and roll can be a thankless task. People treasure moments like Elvis and his swiveling hips, Chuck and his duck walk, Jerry Lee literally setting his piano on fire, et cetera, but the quiet moments of the era seem to be forgotten. Audiences at the time perceived gems like The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Lenny Welch’s “Since I Don’t Have You”, Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All in the Game” as real rock, despite the fact that they weren’t loud, lively, or had a pounding 4/4 beat.
Leon Bridges hearkens back to that earlier era of rock history when quiet and sincere could be just as radical as its opposite. He frequently gets compared to Sam Cooke because of their vocal similarities, and while there is some merit to this, there are important differences. Cooke sang his mellow music as an attempt to be a commercial success on a national label. Check out his “Live at the Harlem Square Club” for a more unvarnished Cooke, and perhaps a more accurate offering of Cooke’s raw ability. Bridges’ music follows the opposite track. He’s inherently smooth and melodious.
Bridges’ easygoing approach makes his music accessible. When he sings lines such as “I want to shine like the candle”, it’s clear he is not about to set himself on fire for anyone. His passion is to be “a better man”. The object of his desire is “a cutie pie”. The songs are full of such examples of Bridges’ seeming tranquility. In fact one of his most lively songs is entitled, “Smooth Sailing”. But this is just a rhetorical façade. His voice has a seductive quality that beckons one to feel deeply. The gentle doo wop beat that surrounds his serenade to his “cutie pie” (re: “Brown Skinned Girl”) suggests he wants to do more than just hold a stranger in his arms. In the early years of rock, singers used these kinds of euphemisms because records would not be played on the radio if they were too suggestive, Bridges can sing sexually explicit lyrics but chooses not to as a way of being even sexier. Just like a person wearing clothes can be more seductive than a naked being, Bridges uses a more innocent style to be sultrier than a singer offering risqué lyrics.
Of course just like a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, sometimes Bridges unhurried approach to the music is just that. The most earnest cut, “Lisa Sawyer”, tells the story of his mother’s life, including finding Christ at age 16. He offers no hidden meanings to his mother’s ability to survive hard times and thrive with the little she had. Bridges comes off as a proud son paying tribute to his parent; nothing more, nothing less. The fact that he can make this into a compelling tale without overdramatizing the details reveals his knack for narrative. He can sing a story.
Coming Home shares another quality with those albums from the early rock days. It’s short. The majority of the 10 songs are in the three minute range and the album only lasts about half an hour. That’s actually a benefit. Bridges’ journey to the past is a pleasant journey, but one wouldn’t want to live there. Remember, the days of early rock were also one of social conformity, restrictive sexual mores, racial inequality, Cold War fear, etc. It was a time of repression. While it’s been said that suffering can create great art, who really wants to suffer? Bridges doesn’t. His relaxed manner symbolizes the advances that have occurred. One can chose to perform in a historic style and make it fresh and new without being retro. Coming home doesn’t mean one returns to the past. It simply implies Bridges finds comfort in the music from back then, when the music’s profound revolutionary nature was found in its serene manner. This made it more adult, during a time when teen music was considered kid’s stuff. Bridges’ album is for youth with mature tastes.