Leon Bridges' 'Gold-Diggers Sound' Is Informed by the Past but Styled for the Now

Leon Bridges' 'Gold-Diggers Sound' Is Informed by the Past but Styled for the Now
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Somewhere between the 10 p.m. coffees and 10 a.m. tequilas, Leon Bridges found a groove. Recorded during two years' worth of all-night jam sessions at the East Hollywood studio/dance bar/boutique hotel of the same name, Gold-Diggers Sound is a lean and refined R&B project. Crisp and classy as its milky-voiced maestro, Bridges described his third full-length in a press release as his "most sensual and confident album to date," and it would be difficult to disagree. We're betting the tequila was top shelf and the coffee a step above diner drip.

Bridges' upbeat revivalist soul-stomping debut, 2015's Coming Home, put him on the map (and remains his most fun listen). Then Atlanta-born, Texas-bred singer-songwriter busted out of the retro box with 2018's eclectic (and, perhaps, scattered) Good Thing, which delved into disco, funk and pop. Having established his musical and vocal range, the 32-year-old Grammy winner zeroes in on laying down a pure R&B platter. Gold-Diggers Sound is informed by the past but styled for the now.

Bridges loves a good love song, and nails a few here. In the slinky groove of "Details," he pores over every nuance of his muse, like "how you pause when you talk when you tryin' not to laugh." While Bridges' lyric sheets keep the affairs PG, his tone on the sultry "Sho Nuff" or "Steam" — a dance-floor seduction that would fit snugly in the '80s — leaves enough breath for R-rated imagination. Lead single "Motorbike" is a spur-of-the-moment romantic getaway in which our hero's voice quavers fragile like riding his escape vehicle of choice without a helmet. If there's a Miguel influence bubbling here, we're not mad at it.
 
Musically, producers Ricky Reed and Nate Mercereau toss in touches of Afrobeat ("Born Again"), sunny jazz and falsetto flits ("Magnolias"), plus cinematic strings (pain-swallowing closer "Blue Mesas"). The most ambitious efforts are saved for the back half of the LP: "Sweeter" — a response to anti-Black police brutality released in the days after George Floyd's death — stands firm as the album's masterpiece. Even though Bridges performed the song at the Democratic National Convention, the thing still stirs with melancholy, defiance and hope.

"Don't Worry," a sprawling and hopeful breakup duet with Ink, delivers a welcome contrast in voices.Its six-and-a-half-minute runtime doubles the length of nearly every other track on Gold-Diggers, allowing for country twang to evolve into Dixie horn blasts. Like Bridges' career itself, it's smooth and collaborative, and will keeps everyone on their toes, not knowing what sound will come next. (Columbia)