Leon Bridges’ ’60s-inspired breakthrough record Coming Home had old souls celebrating when it was released in 2015. Charming audiences with his soulful, romantic voice, the Southern singer was almost oxymoronic — his harkening back to classic rhythm and blues produced a nostalgia so powerful that it was refreshing. Released six years later, Bridges’ third album, Gold-Diggers Sound, is perfectly titled for the retro yet contemporary vocalist. The title pays homage to the record’s birthplace on Santa Monica Boulevard: Gold-Diggers, a historical recording studio that is now equal parts studio, bar, venue and hotel. Despite its renovations, Gold-Diggers’ musical history dates back to the 1920s, making it the perfect metaphor for Bridges’ “what’s old is new again” style.
Unlike Bridges’ earlier works, however, Gold-Diggers Sound embraces elements of modern R&B wholeheartedly, leaving the artist’s traditional sound behind. Several of the songs on the album resemble Frank Ocean’s style, with melodic vocals overtop a “lo-fi beats” homework playlist. Overall, the record is flat and it pales in comparison to the rest of Bridges’ bluesy, impassioned oeuvre. This is not to bash on lo-fi beats — they serve a particular purpose in the music industry — but with Bridges’ groundbreaking, soulful discography, his own shoes are tough to fill.
The opening track “Born Again” perfectly embodies the album’s imperfections: It’s a conventional R&B jam with undeveloped emotions. Seeking to incorporate Bridges’ classic flair into an otherwise basic 2021-style R&B jam, the song sprinkles some trumpet sounds throughout. Unfortunately, these notes are not enough to distinguish the song from the rest in its genre. It lacks buildup, its repetitive hook and steady beats plateau and Bridges’ efforts to convey passion are empty. “Motorbike” and “Why Don’t You Touch Me” run into similar problems: Despite Bridges’ compelling vocals and stellar harmonies, the songs are nothing groundbreaking from a compositional standpoint.
“Steam,” a suggestive yet subtle allusion to sex, is certainly a standout song. Its catchy, upbeat instrumental offers a funky deviance from the remainder of the album’s uniform R&B flow. “Don’t Worry (feat. Ink)” is also a standout; its instrumental is balanced and calming, and the featured female vocalist’s soulful voice compliments Bridges’. Mirroring a healthy conversation between longing ex-lovers who have grown independently of one another, Bridges and Ink assure each other not to worry. Lyrically and compositionally, the song is reminiscent, heartfelt and romantic in a way that isn’t overbearing. The final chorus brings a climactic end to the 6 minute and 41-second tale with a celebratory orchestra tastefully accompanying the track.
Marking uncharted territory for Bridges, the powerful, political messaging on “Sweeter” grapples with America’s systemic racism. Released during the 2020 protests over racial profiling and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd, the song asks “Why do I fear with skin dark as night?/ Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes.” This song serves as an important critical piece for Bridges, whose previous body of work avoided the political and instead reflected a desire to revive older American musical styles. The lyrics “Somebody should hand you a felony/ Because you stole from me/ My chance to be” are especially clever, as they criticize the great American irony of punishing theft while simultaneously depriving Black Americans of essential civil liberties.
Unfortunately, the lyrical expertise on “Don’t Worry” and “Sweeter” is unmatched by the remainder of the album. Despite being well-produced, the amorous lyrics on “Magnolias,” “Details” and “Sho Nuff” say nothing that hasn’t already been said about love, running into the dreaded pitfalls of dull conventionality. Although certain songs are stellar and the album as a whole is cohesive, Gold-Diggers Sound is a bit of a miss. Despite its undeniable polish and soothing elegance, the album’s disregard for Bridges’ signature nostalgia deprives it of its potential authenticity. In comparison to his earlier works, Gold-Diggers Sound is rather hollow and predictable — though pleasing to the ear, Bridges’ flimsy attempts at conveying true emotion leave the heart yearning for more.