Mavis Staples, “If All I Was Was Black” (Anti/Epitaph)
Mavis Staples seems to grow in stature the longer she keeps chronicling America and its contemporary woes. Her constant frame of reference — the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and her family’s proud role as musical pathfinders in those tumultuous years — is useful as she addresses today’s troubled racial waters.
In her third major collaboration with songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Staples examines the American scene, 2017, and finds it wanting in kindness and compassion. Musically, though, she has found a delicious, bass-heavy groove, slow and easy and perfectly suited for the confident, wise voice of a veteran singer who has been performing since 1948.
“If All I Was Was Black” is overtly political. Tweedy, lead writer on the project, says it would feel wrong not to face what is happening in the United States head on. “We Go High,” for example, builds on a notable phrase from a Michelle Obama speech. It’s a record that describes an America where “people are dying, bullets they’re flying.”
Some of the more gospel-tinged songs, reflecting the underlying optimism in much of Staples’ work, include a spiritual call for more loving in the world. “We’ve got work to do” is repeated on the chilling conclusion of “No Time for Crying,” an eloquent song that calls for action rather than simply denouncing what’s gone wrong. And she’s ready to see her own faults, admitting on “Try Harder” that there is evil within her, that it would be foolish to pretend she is above reproach.
The pairing with Tweedy works extremely well. The music is deeply felt, the presentation understated, the guitar work, particularly on the climactic “All Over Again,” elegant and supportive. At 78, Staples has never sounded more contemporary.