Son Little (real name: Aaron Earl Livingston), one of many current artists remaking soul music in their distinctive way, gets right to work on his new album Aloha, hitting listeners with the super catchy and decidedly sexy “Hey Rose”. “Hey Rose / Your soul is the picture,” Little sings, “But your body is the frame / But the frame is exquisite / And you taste just like your name.” While those lyrics could be the most disastrous romantic lines ever, Little conveys them perfectly, his raspy but likable voice accompanied by minimal guitar chords and handclaps. Even within the seduction, there is a sense of foreboding: as the song ends, the couple are “engaged in lovers games”, but the singer then pleads, “can I hold you till these dark dreams fade?”
“Hey Rose” is one of those album-opening songs that is so engaging that it might take listeners a while to get beyond it and settle into the rest of Aloha. But as the album unfolds, it becomes clear that Son Little is doing his best to balance feelings of ecstasy and despair.
Part of the reason for this dichotomy can be found in the story of how Aloha was made. In a recent PopMatters interview, Son Little recounted how a computer drive on which he’d been creating demos suddenly died on him, and essentially stayed dead, leading Livingston to write a new set of songs in a short space of time. Eight days, to be exact.
While we’ll never know what the original album that Little had planned would have sounded like, we do have Aloha, a thoughtful collection of songs that feels anything but rushed. While Little had previously self-produced his albums, he collaborated with French producer Renaud Letang on Aloha, resulting in an album that trades studio polish for a rough and ready sound that suits the album’s empathetic lyrics.
“Hey Rose” gets the album off on a relatively upbeat note, but the second song, “About Her. Again.” finds Little dissecting a tangled relationship in a classic Stax ballad style: “She said this ain’t workin’ / All my work was for nothin’ / So I’m sitting here, smoking / With my head in my hands.” Another ballad, “Suffer”, feels like the emotional centerpiece of the album, with Little again pondering the mysteries of a relationship and the inevitable pain that accompanies it. Despite the pain, “we don’t have to suffer / You and I / We don’t have to wade in the trenches every night.”
Little does offer one other upbeat pop track, “3rd Eye Weeping”, which, despite the bouncy music, finds the singer having a bad week. “Wanna grab a baseball bat / Smash up everything I see”, although he then decides, “I better get right and breathe.” Little expresses that determination to confront the trouble of life — whether these troubles are romantic, technological, or more existential in nature — most explicitly in the spooky and gospel-tinged “Neve Give Up” near the end of the album.
Son Little closes Aloha with the peaceful, but lyrically-ambivalent “After All (I Must Be Wrong)”. “I think I love you, but I must be gone / I mean I love you, but I must be wrong,” Little sings as the album gently fades away. The music is comforting, the lyrics just a bit disquieting. At the end of Aloha, ecstasy and despair continue to co-exist, much as they do in real life.