Certain Songs #924: Leon Bridges – “Better Man”

Album: Coming Home
Year: 2015

It comes as no surprise, of course, that gutbucket soul music is one of those genres that’s never really died, that like rock ‘n’ roll or jazz or any other form of popular music that’s not really central to the current conversation there will always be a small percentage of young, talented people who want to explore it.

What is a surprise is that a guy like Leon Bridges got his classic Staxy soul album Coming Home released on a major label like Columbia. And that it was a bit of a hit, reaching #6 on the Billboard charts, especially for an album that makes very few concessions to any kind of modernization.

For me, the best thing by far on Coming Home was the second track, “Better Man,” which transcends its otherwise garden-variety “take me back after I’ve fucked up” lyrical conceit with a couple of things. First off is a propulsive bassline that moves ever forward note after note after note. It’s simple as all hell, but it’s also the backbone of the whole song, as nearly all of the other instruments — a ghostly organ here, guitar licks there, a couple of horn stabs why not — fade in an out of the mix as needed.

The second is the chorus, instantly memorable:

What can I do? What can I do?
To get back to your heart
I’d swim the Mississippi river
If you would give me another start, girl

As undersung by Bridges — in a voice that leans towards Sam Cooke / Al Green smooth instead of James Brown / Otis Redding rough — that chorus sounds like a guy who is really sincere about wanting to change: a guy who was faking it would be belting it. So while you know Bridges isn’t going isn’t going to swim the Mississippi River and I know he isn’t going to swim the Mississippi River, in that moment, it seems like he’s ready to try it just to get her back.

Which is all that matters.

Official Video for “Better Man”

“Better Man” performed live on Austin City Limits

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