Favorite Track: "Sweeter (feat. Terrace Martin)" Least Favorite Track: "Sho Nuff"
Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Al Green: all incredible musicians who revolutionized the soul movement with their jaw-dropping voices and knack for creating incredibly groovy soul classics. The soul era proved to be an important moment in music history, and the influence these artists and others had on modern soul music is insurmountable. Leon Bridges is an obvious example. With a remarkably lush voice and an incredible discography, the Texas singer has taken modern soul to new heights. His Coming Home debut saw Bridges’ golden voice slyfully crooning over a retro soul sound; one that recalled the soul giants of the past. “Coming Home” and “River” quickly became 2010’s classics, and showed that his undeniable talent had nowhere to go but up. 2018’s Good Thing is more adventurous than Coming Home, giving us the same soulful sweetness with a slight inclination towards the present. The more notable tracks “Bad Bad News” and “Beyond” have a beautiful balance between a Motown soul sound and a modern R&B sound that you would hear from Jhené Aiko or SZA. Leon Bridges also has a collection of incredible singles under his belt, including “July” with Noah Cyrus, “Inside Friend” with John Mayer, “All About You” with Lucky Daye, and a small EP with the psychedelic Thai rock/funk group Khruangbin entitled “Texas Sun.” Only adding to his immaculate discography is 2021’s Gold-Diggers Sound, a timeless project that is his most modern sounding yet.
Subtlety is one of Leon Bridges’ biggest strengths in his music, and overall, Gold-Diggers Sound favors a more delicate and intimate quality than previous projects. Right from the opener “Born Again,” which features the incredible pianist Robert Glasper, you can get an idea for the subdued vibe on the album. Warm synths, Bridges’ silky smooth vocals, and some tender saxophone tones create a comforting atmosphere. “Feeling born again, Feeling Joy again/When all else fails, your love will last forever” is crooned on the chorus, adding to the already sensitive palette of soul/R&B meditation. Even when the drums and brass enters, the dynamic subtleness is kept, but the energy is increased; an underrated talent used by artists like Leon Bridges. The following song “Motorbike” begins with a muffled guitar line, slowly incorporating soft bass and drums as to not tease a point of climax or catharsis. The chorus offers a break from the lyrical flow, singing “On the back, of my, Motorbike/Switch lanes, 29.” The little pauses in his vocals give the impression that the chorus has changed the songs subtlety, but have really added to it, sounding natural as if he were whispering right in your ear.
“Sweeter (feat. Terrace Martin)” strays from feel-good, romantical lyrics to focus on a much deeper and darker point: why nothing has changed since the 1960’s. Released as a single in Summer of 2020, it is a meditation on the events that took place following the unjust murder of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer. A fragile trap beat and relatively high pitched synth is all that’s audible before Leon Bridges jumps right into the chorus. “Hoping for a life more sweeter/Instead I’m just a story repeating/Why do I fear with skin dark as night?/Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes” is sung as if Bridges were a black man taking his final breaths. Saxophonist Terrace Martin sprinkles in some passionate melodic lines, and the two transport us to a state of grief and despair, as we ponder why black people have to live this way. “Why Don’t You Touch Me?” is another point of vulnerability from Bridges. The lyrics depict a couple whose love has subsided over time, and each verse seems to be a point of view from each of them. In the chorus, the broken couple is hopeful that a single touch will rekindle the fire that has died out, simply asking “If you’re still in love, oh, like you sayin’, Then why don’t you touch me?” The instrumental has a Petit Biscuit or beabadoobee lo-fi beat style to it, and is definitely one of the weakest instrumentals across Gold-Diggers Sound, but is saved by Bridges’ powerful, melancholic allure.
Speaking of instrumentals, Leon Bridges definitely knows how to create some beautiful arrangements. Even on a song like “Magnolias,” which is nothing more than some acoustic guitar, occasional horns, bass, and a trap beat, the way he balances his harmonizations and vocals with the subtle and simplistic beat creates a highly catchy track. “Steam” is another example, beginning with a strong drum and bass groove, classic R&B guitar strumming, and later adding in some sweet background vocals and more guitar layers to create the perfect song to force happiness into the listener. “Gold Digger’s (Junior Fanfare)” is a nice break in the highly similar sounding tracklist, giving us a beautiful horn fanfare played by Terrace Martin, jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and trombonist Lemar Guillary. Each musician has an amazing tone, so the blend and balance between them is something most classical quartets could only dream of achieving. “Details” is an undeniable R&B groove, with subdued guitars, tight snare, hi-hat, and bass drum grooves, and bouncing bass lines supporting Bridges’ incredible vocals. At one point, he raises the key up a half step, and the instrumental uses that as an opportunity to get more expressive, adding horns, synths, and other auxiliary percussion.
The last two tracks of Gold-Diggers Sound are definitely the most interesting in terms of lyricism and instrumentalism when considering the entire tracklist. “Don’t Worry (feat. Ink)” sees Leon Bridges exploring a motif around time. In the first verse, he explains how “we’ve been runnin’ ‘round,” “runnin’ this thing,” and “runnin’ it down,” which all clue into how the relationship hasn’t been given a proper amount of time. He even compares himself to “a broken clock” to highlight how he stopped giving her time. The song is impeccably well-structured beyond the thematic material, with the instrumental having this almost country/folk feel. Slide guitars, piano, acoustic bass, and drums plague the entire track, and singer Atia “Ink” Boggs is an excellent collaborator to harmonize the repeated phrase “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” in the chorus. The closing track “Blue Mesas” ends Gold-Diggers Sound on a relatively solemn note. A cello string section opens the track to invoke the image of soldiers going off to battle, but in reality, it is depicting Bridges going to war with himself. He touches on many insecurities that he has, including the way he portrays himself in the limelight as well as the innate loneliness he feels surrounded by “friends” who care more for his talent than his actual well-being. However, in the end he feels that music is the best way to get his solace out. Strings, bongos, piano, bass, and snares all work together to conceive an introspective space for listeners, with Bridges asking the important question of “How you get lonely even though, you’re surrounded by the ones you know?”
While Gold-Diggers Sound doesn’t have the allure of old soul to the degree that Coming Home and Good Thing has, it is still an incredible feat for Leon Bridges. From the deep, mystifying lyrics, to the strangely enticing instrumentals, the album serves as another extension of his appeal in today’s music world. The subtle, intimate tone that he has adopted has made each of his albums more captivating, more enchanting, and more profound, and for him to incorporate those characteristics into an album that is more modern-in-nature means he created a soul/R&B album unlike any other. We can only hope that this doesn’t become a path that he dies on; rather, a path that sees expansion, elevation, and fulfillment.