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Leon Bridges: Hungry is My State of Mind

Bill Murphy | April 19, 2018
Jack McKain

Something incredible happens right after the string-soaked opening filigree of “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand,” the leadoff cut from Leon Bridges’ new album, fades into the dewy distance, and it’s so unexpected that it lends the song an immediate and lasting visceral impact. See, there’s this unwritten rule about “the payoff”—that crucial flashpoint during a performance when a singer seems to break through a previously imperceptible barrier and take us higher. The rule is it’s just like making love; you’re supposed to tease it out with a build-up and then, boom, hit it like Aretha does in “I Never Loved a Man,” her voice rising with emotion over the words “I’ll never be free since you got your hooks in me,” and suddenly leaping an octave as she nails that ecstatic “Yeah!” with her raw, sensuous and unbridled energy. She’s possessed by the elevated power of the moment, and we’re right there with her.

So here’s the thing: Bridges hits the payoff on “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand” with the first line he sings, because he steps to the microphone with a totally unexpected and poignant burst of notes in an upper register that he never thought to try before. “It’s kind of funny,” he says, actually allowing himself a brief chuckle, “because for that particular jam, the guys laid down the instrumental groundwork, and then when I was ready to go, [producer] Ricky Reed suggested, ‘Why don’t you sing this first part in falsetto?’ And I was like, ‘Umm, really?’ At that point, I had never written a falsetto part into one of my songs. But I tried it, and it felt good and sounded good, so we just went with it.”

And, with that one spine-tingling moment, Bridges makes the case that Good Thing is much more than just a reboot of the pristinely retro-soul sound he crafted on his smash debut Coming Home. That album, which he recorded in his native Fort Worth, Texas, with fellow travelers Austin Jenkins and Josh Block—guitarist and drummer in the hyper-inventive boogie-blues-rock band White Denim, respectively—was a triumph of instant chemistry, ingenuity and damn good timing. (Jenkins and Block have since left White Denim and have teamed up with Chris Vivion to found the Niles City Sound studio.)

But after landing a deal with Columbia and hitting the road for most of the next three years, Bridges and company found that the new ideas were coming too fast and furious, and needed to be documented.

“We actually recorded quite a bit of material that wasn’t on the Good Thing album you hear today,” Jenkins recalls. “What you hear now is a culmination of all the points of entry that we were looking at over the year and a half that we were doing stuff here at the studio, before we took everything out to Los Angeles. Leon was writing on the road a lot when we were on tour, and then we’d come in and lay some of those ideas down. Sometimes that would be the full band tracking live, or sometimes it would be a new idea that needed fleshing out. And he went far out at one point, to where we were pushing the limits of where it could go. Leon was very conscious, in a cool and brave way, to not just make Coming Home 2.0. And I love that—if Coming Home was his homage to a certain era of R&B and soul, then I’d call this record a homage to R&B and soul in all forms.”