Leon Bridges made his name as a young artist with an affinity for old music. His 2015 debut, Coming Home, was both praised and lightly criticized for its obsessively recreated retro-soul aesthetic, right down to the pleated trousers he wears on the album’s cover. With his sophomore effort Good Thing, Bridges brings his classicist R&B chops into the current century—with mixed results.
The album opens with “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand,” impeccably channeling Motown’s baroque period with a glistening string arrangement and Bridges gliding in and out of a Marvin Gaye-esque falsetto. But his chief aesthetic models here aren’t classic soulsters like Gaye and Sam Cooke, but present-day heavy hitters like Sam Smith and Adele—artists who’ve mapped “retro” sounds onto modern radio formats, achieving crossover success in the process.
For at least the first four of Good Thing’s 10 tracks, the experiment pays off. “Bad Bad News” pairs a cool jazz groove with a hip-hop-influenced vocal delivery; one can easily imagine Anderson .Paak doing something similar with the track. “Beyond,” meanwhile, effortlessly integrates the country-soul vibes Justin Timberlake recently spent a whole album clumsily chasing.
But the album falters when Bridges strays from his retro-soul wheelhouse. The fingerprints of producer Ricky Reed are too evident on “Forgive You,” a bland slice of adult-contemporary R&B that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Maroon 5 album Reed recently helped produce. The sleek, ’80s-style pop-funk of “If It Feels Good, Then It Must Be” fares better, but lacks the conviction of other recent forays in the style, such as Janelle Monáe’s “Make Me Feel.”
Bridges goes out on a high note with “Georgia to Texas,” a moving tribute to his mother that plays to the same stripped-down gospel strengths as his breakout song “River.” It’s just him accompanied by drums, saxophone, piano, and stand-up bass; you can even hear the bass player’s fingers scraping against the strings. And after the album’s muddled middle section, the closing track feels like a reminder of what Bridges does best: not “retro” per se, but lived-in and genuine. That’s something Good Thing—and contemporary R&B more generally—could use a little more of.