Leon Bridges, 28, grew up listening to Ginuwine and Usher, developed as a songwriter on the Fort Worth, Texas open mic circuit, and got his break hooking up with half of Austin indie-prog-whatever quartet White Denim. None of this sounds like a recipe for retro soul, but Bridges filled his 2015 debut, Coming Home, with vintage Sixties verities so breezily rendered they felt like half-remembered snatches of old songs, which in some sense they were.
So when Good Thing opens with a cloudburst of strings, harps and glockenspiel on “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand,” it will seem like Bridges has simply moved up a decade to the Seventies — especially since the next song, “Bad Bad News,” has a fusion-tuned bell-bottom groove. But Bridges is reaching on this album, looking for a future sound that connects his own past and the sweeping history of African-American music with the present moment. One minute, the intimate acoustic strum of “Beyond” (co-written by Selena Gomez song-doctor Justin Tranter) brings to mind “Into the Mystic” Van Morrison; the next, the stellar sweep “Forgive You” (overseen, as is all of Good Times, by Ricky Reed, producer for Twenty One Pilots, Halsey, Meghan Trainor and Maroon 5) takes Usher from the club to the stadium.
Not everything works. “If It Feels Good, It Must Be” and “You Don’t Know” feel like fake Pharrell, which is some pretty thin plastic. But the closers – the skin-to-skin makeup sex ballad “Mrs.” and the free-ranging autobiographical narrative “Georgia to Texas” (Bridges’ second tribute to his mom in as many albums) — show how expansive and individual Bridges can be, even as he guns for the charts.