Mavis Staples: Soul Survivor

Mavis StaplesIf All I Was Was Black is an album of its time—and beyond

“Sometimes I get so worried,” it begins, “I don’t know what to do/But all the things I worry about/Very few of them come true/And when they do, I call on you.”

“Ain’t No Doubt About It” opens Mavis Staples’ new record—her 15th solo effort in a career that’s now spanned 67 years, including her youthful tenure in the legendary Staples Singers family group—on a note of earned love and gratitude. If All I Was Was Black (Anti-) also marks Staples’ third collaboration, following 2010’s You Are Not Alone and 2013’s One True Vine, with Jeff Tweedy, who wrote all of its 11 songs and produced the album.

Much of Staples’ solo work, like the Staples Singers’ before it, is rooted thematically and expressively in the gospel milieu in which she sang her first notes. But there are other notes, too—blue notes, soul notes, love notes, sad and glad notes—all an array of colors and textures, all here put to the work of defining and delineating the state of our (dis)union, circa 2017.

In many ways it feels like a different America than it did even two years ago. And in others, as Staples observes, it feels like the same old one of generations past.

“When I’m watching the news sometimes, I feel like I’m back in the ’60s,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. There’s just so much going on today in our world that is not right to me. We’re not loving each other the way that we should. You have a lot of young people who are living in hate. I just pray that we can come together and love one another the way we should.

“What’s the harm in love?” she asks then—a question that should feel rhetorical but somehow, sadly, doesn’t. “There’s nothing more beautiful. Shine your light on your neighbors, speak to your neighbor when you pass them by. We can all do this together.”

Much of If All I Was Was Black articulates this emphasis on love, on reaching out to bridge the gap between people—nowhere more so than on the aptly titled “Build A Bridge,” with its spare, echo-and-tremolo-laced guitar runs and observations on community and perceived isolation: “Look around at our city/Look at us out on the street/Got kids lookin’ over their shoulders/People lookin’ down at their feet.” So what’s to be done? “I’m tired of us livin’ so lonely/I think I know what to do/Gonna build a bridge right over the mountain/I’ll walk right over to you.”

Among the many things If All I Was Was Black also is, it’s irrefutable evidence that Tweedy has the chops to write a solid soul tune—a bunch of them, in point of fact. But borne on Staples’ voice, that instrument with years of experience and memory behind it, the album lifts off the ground and stays aloft for all of its 35 minutes.

“Jeff is just such a great human,” says Staples. “We have a special bond and friendship. I felt it from him early on. He gets it, and I just love working with him. He knew I couldn’t make a happy album right now; there’s too much going on in the world. So we got to talking. We didn’t make the songs on this record point to a specific person or just one event. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.”

True enough. And yet “Build A Bridge” (with its implicit reversal of a recent, much more isolationist catchphrase lately heard in American politics) and “We Go High” (with its evocation of one of the more striking public statements of former first lady Michelle Obama) situate the record in a very specific moment in American life. If it’s not a happy record, exactly (“There’s evil in the world/And there’s evil in me/Don’t do me no good to pretend/I’m as good as I can be,” Staples sings on “Try Harder”), it’s a record that places its faith in the power of love to begin to heal the baser elements of our character.

Whether that’s undue optimism, the listener may decide. As for Staples: “I thank the Lord every day that I’m still here,” she says. “After all I have seen, I don’t have time for crying. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves. We’re living in trying times. I’ve got work to do. We’ve all got work to do. You know I’m just going to keep singing about it until I’ve got nothing left to say.”

—Eric Waggoner