With his second album, “Good Thing,” Leon Bridges has adroitly managed to escape the trap set by his first. But let’s take a moment to point out what a beautiful trap it was. That debut, 2015’s “Coming Home,” was a star-maker for all the right reasons, turning the young Texan into an instant amphitheater headliner and a favorite of no less a cultural arbiter than President Obama on the basis of how preternaturally he was able to channel a certain brand of early ’60s R&B. The album sounded like it was recorded on actual equipment from the era, and his pleated suits looked as if they’d laid amid the world’s gentlest mothballs since then too. But the best part about it was how little Bridges seemed to care about being a revivalist, as great as he was as it. He just happened to be a man possessed — even though, by the end of the media cycle for “Coming Home,” he surely would have traded 10 years of future royalties just to never hear the words “Sam” or “Cooke” again.
Faster than you can say “A change is gonna come,” Bridges has shuffled things up for “Good Thing,” probably correctly divining that what seemed fresh on the freshman outing would start to look like a one-Cooke-pony stunt by album two. He renewed work in the same vein with the same longtime band that produced and co-wrote the first record before thinking better of it. Instead, he started over with project overseer Ricky Reed, a 2017 Grammy producer of the year nominee whose labors here won’t hurt his chances at a repeat nomination. Reed has wisely kept Bridges’ original crew on board for a few tracks, but brought in a broader range of neo-soul collaborators for the others. The new album is not that drastically less of a classicist affair than “Coming Home,” when all is said and done, but this time it’s a whole variety pack of retro. If anyone wanted to bear down on Bridges for still mining the past — and who’d be spoilsport enough to do that? — now he’s much more of a moving target.
The major shift is from leaning in on the early ’60s to taking a whirlwind tour de force through the R&B 1970s. You can see the rough parameters in the two oldies that pop up as samples. Curtis Mayfield gets a co-writing credit for how the heavily orchestrated opening ballad, “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand,” borrows from his oft-sampled 1970 hit “Makings of You,” while the disco track “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” gives a nod in the credits to the Whispers’ 1980 smash “It’s a Love Thing.” There are uncredited debts, as well: The one-two punch of “If It Feels Good” and “You Don’t Know” briefly threatens to turn the album into a full-on Chic tribute record. But the nods do get a lot less blatant, and mixed up enough at times to feel downright contemporary. It’s hard to imagine many pleasures greater than hearing people who happen to be really good at it pay homage to Nile Rodgers. But some of the finer moments on “Good Thing” occur when it becomes completely unmoored in time, and you get to hear a young singer whose real first loves in music were Usher and Ginuwine working with players and producers who clearly dig old funk, 21st-century pop and even hints of free jazz.
No matter what subgenre he explores, Bridges remains as vocally demure as soul singers get. When his moderate rasp breaks into a very occasional falsetto, it almost seems to be happening by accident, not showy design. An increased sex-appeal quotient also sneaks through the cracks. As a son of the church, Bridges used to hide his then-girlfriend from his mother — something he atones for by writing “Forgive You” from the sad point of view of someone who got fed up being kept under wraps. In “Shy,” he sings, “I know you’re shy, you can be shy with me,” then alternates between confessing he’sa little bit inhibited, too, but at the moment “not quite sober.” In “Beyond,” Bridges weighs the balance of sweetness (“I know that Grandma would have loved her”) and sexuality. But at various points you definitely sense him getting his swagger on — in the makeup lovemaking of “Mrs.” or the call-and-response braggadocio of the horn-driven “Bad Bad News” (“I don’t worry about people in my face / I hit ’em with the style and grace, and watch their ankles break”).
In the first go-round, Bridges expressed mild alarm about playing to mostly white, older audiences, and how when he performed at a purely urban festival, the crowd stood stone-faced — a pretty common story for black artists of a certain throwback bent. “Good Thing” may not be the album to completely reverse that, but the folded arms may be a thing of the past. There’s enough genuine contemporizing to the programming and phrasing on the second collection that it really does feel like he’s part of Bruno Mars’ generation and not James Brown’s.
Album three could be the keeper, anyway, since there are some nearly genre-free tracks on “Good Thing” — from the lush and synthy “Forgive You” to the beyond-minimalist experimentation of “Lions” — that sound like templates for a move further into the future. However he proceeds, it seems clear by now that Bridges is always going to seem like an old soul, even if he gives up old soul.