It’s hard to be a truly original voice in the soul and blues territory that Son Little has chosen as his medium, but he manages it. On his second album, New Magic, the singer-songwriter (Aaron Livingston when he’s off stage) manages it better than he ever has before. Rootsier than his self-titled debut and all the stronger for it, Livingston’s latest dials back the busy modern rock production and psych-blues noise to reveal songwriting that is more classic yet less predictable, and enchanting in its spare intimacy.
Starting with the title, the Philadelphia native plays subtly with the idea that there is something preternatural about the blues, or maybe he actually probes what that something might be. The aural conjuring begins with the wavering organ strains of “Kimberly’s Mine.” A spell is being woven as the ghostly organ and other psychedelic sound effects slowly rise around the listener whilst Livingston warns away a romantic rival in no uncertain terms. The charm goes into full effect once the syncopated rhythms and powerful hooks of “Blue Magic” kick in.
The real sleight of hand, however, is that this New Magic is also the old magic. It sound and feels both old and new throughout. Here we have blues songs that could have been written 60 years ago, but speak directly to people living today, though “ASAP” could be from any era when Livingston sings “ain’t got nothing but a dream on me.” Many of the songs, such as “ASAP,” allude to the civil rights struggles of the present moment from the point of view of someone very much in that struggle. These are freighted with existential pain but driven by a fierce determination to survive, spiritually as much as materially.
We also have love songs that are timeless, but heated with a current sexual frankness (“Bread & Butter”) and rock songs that don’t forget to roll. “Oh Me, Oh My,” is one such song, laced with gospel and a hint of Sharon-Jones-style soul. Indeed, at his best moments on New Magic, Son Little does for the blues what Sharon Jones did for soul music. Like Jones, he can make old sounds like new by animating them with his own distinct and necessarily contemporary voice.
New Magic closes on its most potent note with “Demon to the Dark.” For this haunting ballad, we wake up with Livingston somewhere between Sunday morning and the dark night of the soul. Its spiritual language raises the specter of perdition (via drugs and alcohol) and the self-confessed sinner raises his eyes toward redemption (“My heart, my god, it’s full of stars.”), but there is no resolution. The song leaves us in wonderment at an unknown crossroads. As layered as it is, this ending and the rest of the album, its relative simplicity suggests that this is really just the beginning of something. Son Little has even more musical revelations in store.