Album Review: Son Little – New Magic

Spirituals that speak to the raw experiences of manhood and the promise of the divine

Son Little first came to prominence as Aaron Livingston, the unassuming Philadelphia-bred singer-songwriter with a clarion tone that pierced flesh with the same kind of urgency that elicited goosebumps whenever Kurt Cobain made a sound. As one half of the experimental duo Icebird, Little and producer RJD2 levitated across The Abandoned Lullaby. Little provided a striking punctuation to “Sleep” on The Roots’ acclaimed 2011 album, Undun. By the release of his self-titled 2015 EP, he had positioned himself to challenge the nostalgic rhythm and blues that had been reborn in revivalist tour circuit favorites like Ben Harper, Charles Bradley, Gary Clark Jr. and Aloe Blacc; his was a fresher take on their soulful mother tongue. Compared to them, Little’s boots were still a bit dirty, his ears still wet, and his public profile nowhere near as sizable. His voice and pen, however, were another thing entirely. Between 2004 and 2015, Son Little amassed a cult following that would make his underground status a formality. His grasp of the folkways, ancient growls, otherworldly electricity, and showmanship inherent to black music that separates all of them from the less unctuous catalogs of their generational peers became readily apparent. Little’s use of emotion as a third instrument and his flair for the cinematic easily quell concerns about his commercial appeal. His devotion to craft and understanding of lineage improve with every release. Now, with his second full-length studio album, New Magic, landing just shy of the bull’s-eye, the one mountain he has left to conquer is the consistency necessary to produce the pristine body of work that his best songs suggest.

Until recently, R&B had taken a backseat to its rap- and pop-heavy derivatives. A diligent student of the genre that time heavily revised and almost forgot, Little is the author of an 11-track clinic that speaks to his aptitude for the music and the fierce individuality that finds him redefining it. His sound is not about purist notions, but preservationist concerns and futurist experimentation. His singular approach is the more solemn kin to the sleight of hand that found the Alabama Shakes soaring upon the release of their Grammy Award-winning 2015 album, Sound & Color. Introducing even more of the blues back to rhythm and blues, Little’s confident presence on New Magic affords the music a decent amount of the textural and spiritual fortitude it once ceded to generational differences, whitewashing and starry-eyed, over-sanitized electronic production. Traveling down under and digging the tunes of blues man Washington Phillips, Little found a comfort in the music, which sustained him well after typical vices had run their course. That comfort, described in his assessment of Phillips’ catalog as “the sound of love and forgiveness,” would prove fertile ground for the genesis of his sophomore release.

Lead single “Blue Magic” references Jack Johnson’s “Upside Down” and features the percussive signature of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Though an obvious standout, the Philadelphia soul and surf rock mashup about pulling beauty from pain feels out of place within the complete tracklisting. The song is a bright departure that distracts from the otherwise measured pace of a very personal narrative. “Blue Magic” bodes well for Son Little in spite of that, however, because it is proof of his ability to hold his own among the charming but slightly more profane golden boys of chart-busting rap and R&B. While he possesses the songwriting acumen of smash machines like Bruno Mars, Chance the Rapper, and Anderson.Paak, his maturity and inherent grit lend something to the mix that they do not.

Billed as “soul R&B of the apocalypse,” the driving single “O Me O My” takes on Walter Davis’ peg legged mid-century blues with the space-funk flair of a Gnarls Barkley tune. “Bread & Butter” is made of the very best bits of Little’s work with RJD2. Daptones-style rhythms, boom-bap programming, and aggressive production usually compel Little to break the seal on his cool, which is almost always a good time. “Letter Bound” is a sumptuous ballad that captures the feeling of time escaping and ultimately dividing lovers. “Demon to the Dark” is the seamless, challenging, and beautiful moment Little spent the entire project trying to achieve. It captures the melancholic quirkiness that characterized Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, making the seductive euphoria of the preceding track short-lived. Little abandons machismo and submits to his own weaknesses as he croons, “…paralyzed because of fear/ I been this way now since the ’80s/ That’s when I started with the beer/ Just to help me with the tremors/ The liquor keeps me even keel/ The powder gets me through the night time, and all my daytime friends are pills.” Little cries out to “Mr. Phillips” — a man whose blues was girded by unflinching faith — for guidance.

New Magic is a redemption song that finds Son Little posturing but more often prostrate at the altar of obscure musical titans who ruled small rooms and stages with burdened hearts and rough-hewn instruments. Looking for good counsel in their statements, Little divines with a glockenspiel and the more modern Omnichord — an instrument familiar to fans of Quadron’s Ex-Factor cover and the closest thing he could find to the dulcimer tone of Phillips’ signature invention, the manzarene — to transmit a sinner’s blues that awakens the spirit of a jack-leg preacher whose works are a balm for his anxieties. In Phillips’ songs, he finds a different kind of fix than those he has historically indulged. The closing track is a kite to the man and the class of musicians whose torch he carries. In their music, he finds the courage to spin his own chaos into gold. Plying minimalist soul and weary lullabies with rambling guitar, Little presents a collection of spirituals that speak to the raw experiences of manhood and the promise of the divine. They do so with a finesse that improves upon the overt prayers carrying the records he consults. Like the trauma that plagues him, however, the record is deflated slightly by songs one might be inclined to forget. Son Little’s latest is otherwise abundant with magic. Had he left a few of his weaker tracks in the woodshed, he might have realized the balance necessary to sustain it.

Essential Tracks: “Mad About You”, “O Me, O My”, and “Letter Bound”


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