On July 8, a few weeks before the release of his third LP, Leon Bridges posted an intimate Instagram teaser of a song titled “Steam.” Over nothing more than threadbare fingerpicking, he quietly crooned about a possible late-night hook-up: “Shouldn’t complain, but this function’s dry / Don’t wanna small talk or socialize / What are you doing tonight?” In the comments, jazz artist Josh Johnson lobbied for an “acoustic EP” edition of Gold-Diggers Sound. Bridges fired back, “on gawd tho.”
But the album itself, even at its quietest, sounds very little like that social media teaser — and perhaps that was Bridges’ point. A quality song, like the simmering electro-funk of “Steam,” can exist in any arrangement. That move also underscores the shapeshifter mentality he’s displayed since day one, evolving from the vintage soul vibes of 2015’s Coming Home to the try-anything-once (including funk and disco) aesthetic of 2018’s Good Thing to the psychedelic atmospheres of 2020’s Texas Sun, a collaborative EP with Khruangbin.
Gold-Diggers Sound is yet another graceful, often captivating deviation from the retro path most critics probably expected him to stick with—particularly after earning a 2016 Grammy nod for Best R&B Album. Patiently molding these songs over two years at the titular East Hollywood bar/hotel/recording studio, Bridges jammed and wrote with an enormous cast of players and producers, arriving at a sleeker, jazzier sound befitting a space of such chicness.
With opener “Born Again,” featuring keyboardist Robert Glasper, Bridges eases into this mood like a warm bath, his zen-like melisma backed by woozy synths and muted brass. “Sit still, take it slow, soak it in,” he sings, pining for eternal love. And the next two tracks massage that sweet spot of ambiance and melody. “Motorbike” could be the sexiest track in his catalog, using that vehicle as a seduction method; meanwhile, Ricky Reed and Nate Mercereau, the record’s co-producers and primary collaborators, build a ghostly groove from rolling programmed drums and palm-muted electric guitar. “Steam” almost feels like that song’s funkier counterpart, Bridges flexing triplet flows and falsettos over high-octave chords and psychedelic curlicue fills.
The most seductive moments on Gold-Diggers Sound feel the most band-centric, conjuring the real-life image of Bridges hanging out with a massive group of musicians at a bar-studio. (The liner notes largely reflect this expansiveness, with most tracks featuring numerous co-writers. A whopping eight people pitched in to help him craft the slow jam “Sho Nuff.”) The sighing horns and psych-soul guitars of “Details” recall D’Angelo at his smoothest, and closer “Blue Mesas” expands the palette with a simmering arrangement of cello, upright bass and live percussion.
But the anchoring opening trilogy is also a semi-painful tease, with much of the LP falling into comfortable, sleepy balladry (the reverb-bathed “Why Don’t You Touch Me,” the Western tremolo twang of “Don’t Worry”) that prioritizes texture over tune. Bridges could pull off that kind of stuff without batting an eyelash.
“Baby, you and me is a vibe,” he sings on “Motorbike.” True—but at his peak, the songs dig deeper for gold.
Ryan Reed is a Contributing Editor at SPIN and Ultimate Classic Rock, the Monday night news editor at Rolling Stone, and a freelancer for outlets like Relix and The New York Times.