Leon Bridges sounds awfully like Sam Cooke on Coming Home. As a soul musician it’s damn near impossible to avoid comparisons to Cooke, such was the influence and quality of his music, but Bridges’ similarity is uncanny.
His vocals strive to replicate a youthful Cooke, and as a quick look at any of his music videos will prove, Bridges has adopted Cooke’s aesthetic, perhaps with a little more zest. In ‘Smooth Sailin‘ he rocks a fitted green suit and dances in front of a live band with all the swagger of a 1960s television performance, and the black-and-white ‘Coming Home‘ video fetishises each part of his vintage outfit from the leather shoes to felt hat, and locations from diners to barbershops.
His entire schtick is unashamedly a self-conscious recreation of the great soul musicians of the past, but Bridges feels sincere. Coming Home is work of a soul super fan, and musically, Bridges’ strict obedience to recognisable soul tropes is both his great strength and weakness. When he pulls it off, Bridges makes songs genuinely worthy of the soul canon. Lead singles ‘Coming Home’ and ‘River’ are warm and catchy and the former is an obvious radio hit, and despite the fact the songs sound recognisable, it’s difficult to complain when Bridges undoubtedly has the voice and talent to pull off the nostalgia he craves. He shows off his storytelling skills in ‘Lisa Sawyer’, a moving portrait of his mother, and, like many of his other songs, uses prominent backing vocals to make it feel like a welcoming sing-along.
But at times Coming Home feels like a retrospective ticking off soul tropes, and the revivalist feel can be hard to shake. The references to Mississippi and New Orleans littered throughout the record feel tired, as do the doo-wop backing vocals in ‘Better Man.’ ‘Flowers’ relies too heavily on a hackneyed bassline and ooh-ba-ba-ba-backing-vocals, and when these elements become too obvious they undermine a sense of emotional integrity which, as a soul record, Coming Home is reliant on.
The line between warm nostalgia and unoriginality is a thin one, but for the most part Bridges’ talent to create compelling songs means Coming Home feels like far more than a simply derivative record. Bridges’ meandering vocals and the moody saxophone on ‘Brown Skin Girl’ are pure escapism, and the longing regret of ‘Pull Away’—”My pillow bears a tear of a man in pain / Our love, I thought I could sustain”—is both melodramatic and uplifting in the way that Cooke was in ‘Sad Mood‘ and ‘You Were Made For Me‘ so long ago.
Does Coming Home make me feel anything that spinning some Cooke couldn’t? The short answer is no. Is it good enough to transcend the act of emulation? I’d argue yes. While some original flair on Bridges’ part would make Coming Home far more significant, there is something to be said for the sheer listenability of the record and the skill with which Bridges replicates the music of his heroes.