By Aidan Connelly
Music writer Margo Jefferson once called Motown “music’s great genre fiction” in regard to the label’s ability to flourish within tight margins. But that’s not just Motown—classic soul has always relied on a short list of themes and experiences to get the job done. Call it a genre of extremes. Heartbreak and uplift aren’t new musical themes, but when the lyrics are sung so vividly and generously, you tend not to notice, or care. It doesn’t take a lyric sheet and careful ears to understand the pleading of Otis Redding’s delivery on “These Arms of Mine,” or the scorn on Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman.” You just feel it on an evolutionary level, as if you were hardwired to love this music.
Texas soul singer Leon Bridges is a big Sam Cooke fan. His voice has that same velvet, romantic quality, and his songs are similarly succinct. But Bridges claims not to have listened to Cooke until after making his own music. Whether you believe that or not, Bridges’ success leans heavily on the influence and appeal of Cooke along with so many others who shaped the sound of the genre in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That influence extends to Bridges’ image as well—the cover of his debut album is a black-and-white artist against a solid color backdrop, an image that appears on the cover of Cooke’s Best Of album.
Does it matter? Soul is a genre about innocence lost and experience gained, where evolving isn’t so much about moving forward as it is about perfecting a formula in the hopes of tapping into an exciting feeling that was there all along. Bridges’ music doesn’t strive to sound new so much as it tries to sound refreshed.
A concept like that looks good on paper. In practice, however, the way in which a modern soul record is going to sit with listeners depends on where they’re coming from, and whether or not they’re willing to buy into half-dated, half-universal formulas.
In the case of modern soul, it also matters where the artist is coming from—Bridges’ is only twenty-six years old. Albeit a twenty-six-year-old whose biggest song has nearly 24 million streams on Spotify.
Charles Bradley, like Leon Bridges, is probably also a big Sam Cooke fan. But after over fifteen years spent as a James Brown impersonator, it’s fair to say his sound aligns itself more with Brown than Cooke. Right now, his career rests on a similar plane as Bridges’, but Bradley has an advantage as a wrinkly sixty-seven-year-old. The wear in his voice comes through sparkling in his music. Listeners who cherish soul will find Bridges to be the innocence, and Bradley the experience.
Bradley’s latest album, Changes, was released on April 1. The album rattles with the energy of someone pushing to make up for countless years of lost time. Once again, the audience is left to decide whether this interpretation of soul stands on its own, or slides by as a stale imitation. It’s a concept as American as the soul that fuels it. Soul music is about hope, and if there’s anything that can be learned about hope through soul music, it’s that it persists.