What does it sound like?:
Mavis Staples is a veteran civil rights protester, dating back to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her dad, Pops, and Martin Luther King. She was the stand-out performer of The Staples Singers, so much so that Bob Dylan fell in love with her because of her “deep and mysterious” voice. Now 72, it may have lost its top-end but retains its depth and mystery. This is her third album with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Their first, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy. This time, he wrote all ten songs and Mavis contributed lyrics for three. Wisely, he plays to her strengths, every song having a social conscience in the context of America in 2017 and Black Lives Matter, speaking out against hatred, inequality and indifference.
The musical settings are simple and intimate, ideal for Mavis’s calm, determined delivery, the gospel-tinged backing from The Staples Sisters testifying to the veracity of the truths expressed. Jeff’s guitar, on the other hand, is played through clenched teeth, seething with rage. He adds the tension to the loaded gun opener, Little Bit, the jagged doubts in Who Told You That, the Velvet Underground impatience of No Time For Crying and the aggressive drive underlining Try Harder.
There is, of course, hope, as you’d expect in a Mavis Staples album. Peaceful Dream, a revisit of Martin Luther King’s central message, could be sung on a march to Washington. Build A Bridge’s falsetto backing vocals lift the spirits as much as the positive lyric. The duet with Jeff, Ain’t No Doubt About It, with its delicious melody, illustrates how two people can support each other through almost anything. The title track offers love and understanding as a solution, decorated by an exultant guitar solo.
The overall effect is of participating in a mature, sensible conversation with one of the world’s most dignified human beings. However, when someone with Mavis Staples experience and knowledge speaks, it’s sensible to listen.
In the finale, All Over Again, backed only by Jeff’s acoustic guitar and her trusty Sisters, she girds her loins and wearily prepares to take up the struggle again. She should be strengthened by this powerful little of gem of an album that displays her at her honest and compassionate best.
What does it all *mean*?
Jeff Tweedy has coaxed a spiritual, quietly defiant performance from Mavis that deserves more than just a Grammy.
Goes well with…
Ears that can hear.
Might suit people who like…
Gospel, Soul and Indie Rock.