Baldwin And Bridges: Two Artists, Two Debuts, One FireReviewer Juan Vidal has had the debut album by Texas soul crooner Leon Bridges on heavy rotation, and it's making him think of parallels with James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Every so often, an artist comes along who simply resonates. They show up and fill a particular void in our cultural consciousness, whether in prose, song or film. They tap into something that feels especially new, and at times transcendent.
Leon Bridges is one of those artists. The 25-year-old crooner from Fort Worth, Texas is an old soul with a young, blameless face. And his sultry smoothness evokes, in many ways, the sensibilities of Sam Cooke and early Otis Redding. His tunes carry the weight of nostalgia, but also show signs that R&B's mid-life crisis might be just about over. Finally.
Still, when I listen to cuts from his Columbia Records debut Coming Home, I'm reminded more of a writer than of another singer — a writer whose fiction is heavy with the stark biblical allusions that are also present in Bridges' record.
I'm thinking, as I often do, of James Baldwin. But more specifically I'm thinking of Baldwin's seminal debut Go Tell It on the Mountain. When Bridges sings "Take me to your river, I wanna go," I'm reminded of Baldwin's character Florence, who says "there are people in the world for whom 'coming along' is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive."
Where the urgency in Baldwin's novel is concerned primarily with the injustices in wider society, the lyricism in Coming Home seems,at least at first listen, more inward focused. But that's the power of music: It lets you see your own humanity in the experiences of others. The anecdotes of personal love, loss, and pleas for mercy found throughout Coming Home have echoes in our own lives.
Much can be made of the anguish of John Grimes, an insecure adolescent boy and the main character in Go Tell It on the Mountain, which calls to mind some of Bridges' themes: At the start of the novel, John confesses to having "sinned with his hands" in the school lavatory. Similarly, in "Better Man," Bridges vows to be a lover worthy of his woman's affection, singing in a slightly raspy tone of those "Jezebels under perfumed sheets" that he's committed to leaving behind. Both, even as they differ in scope, touch on the realities of desire and the tensions present in all young men and boys.
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, as in Coming Home, the word fire and the imagery of things ablaze is prevalent. Baldwin's pages burn brightly with anger about abuse and crippling discrimination, all part of the stifling reality of 1930s Harlem, and chock full of sinners and saints trying to find their place: "You is in the Word or you ain't — ain't no half way with God." Coming Home, by comparison, is about sins blowing away in the wind and a renewed, revitalized spirit shining like "the burning candle in the room."
Like Baldwin, who was preaching Pentecostal sermons as a teenager, Bridges is a product of the church. In "Lisa Sawyer," he sings of the woman who raised him in a home filled with gospel music and free of the profane musings rampant in most Top 40. Unlike Baldwin, however, who left the pulpit and the church altogether in his late teens to pursue writing, Bridges remains a professing Christian. And all he's done as an artist thus far only reaffirms that foundation in which his identity lies.
What we find in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Coming Home are two new artists and two debuts that hint at potential greatness. There's an otherness that they both share, too, Bridges and Baldwin, a quality that separates them from their respective counterparts. Time will tell if Leon Bridges, like Baldwin, will serve as a voice that future generations look to for guidance.
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter:@itsjuanlove.