Release Date: Nov 17, 2017
Record label: Anti-
At first blush, the new album from legendary gospel/soul singer Mavis Staples seems like an odd project. It's called If All I Was Was Black, which makes sense, given the color of Staples' skin. But every song was written or co-written by decidedly white Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy. (He co-wrote three with Staples.) So are these largely Tweedy's feelings; a white man writing about the black experience in America? If so, why not just record them himself? Or did he feel like he had to call on his longtime friend to sing them when he found himself writing lyrics like "When I say my life matters, you can say yours does, too.
With gospel legends the Staple Singers, Mavis Staples was wailing anthems of pride and defiance back in the civil rights era. For her third collaboration with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Staples eschews standards and revivals in favour of 10 new songs by Tweedy that form a state of the nation address. It's no angry rant, however. Love is Staples's weapon of choice, and "We go high when they go low" its credo.
The year 2017 has been full of political unrest and growing racial division in the United States, but for good or ill, Mavis Staples has seen days like these before. As a teenager, she was a member of the Staple Singers, who in their days as a gospel group were close friends and allies with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the struggle for civil rights was at its peak.
Legendary soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples has enjoyed an extraordinary third act. Most folk at this point in their career might be kicking back or riding the wave of past glories. And why not? Given her achievements as one of soul and gospel's most recognisable voices and her involvement in the civil rights movement during the Sixties, it's fair to say Staples has done her bit via her remarkable contributions as a musician and activist.
U nlike many protest songs birthed by the political situation in the US, the title track of Mavis Staples's 16th solo album is bereft of rage. Instead - as with all of the songs on If All I Was Was Black - it replaces mockery and fury with a warm, calm clarity that is soothing and stirring. Staples explains how it feels to be judged by the colour of your skin (and, on other tracks, the effects of police brutality and internalised oppression) with a patience and simplicity that is heartrending.
Even on an album bursting with pride, stoicism and hard-fought wisdom, lines like, "When I say my life matters, you can say yours does too, but I betcha never have to remind anyone, to look it at from your point of view", delivered by a 78-year-old, US-born black woman prove to be particularly loaded and powerful. But not a surprise - the years may have rolled by, but the oppression and ignorance that made The Staple Singers' Why? (Am I Treated So Bad) or Freedom Highway so necessary hasn't gone away. And Staples remains uncowed; optimistic and graceful as ever in the face of intolerance.
Does Mavis Staples sound a little angry on "Who Told You That," one of the 10 highly topical tunes on her new album? The song is less about everything that makes us angry at the moment and more about how we respond to it all, as the 78-year-old singer addresses those too timid to take a stand and take it to the streets. "We don't want to rock the boat? Who told you that?" she asks, as Jeff Tweedy's guitar stomps in the mud. Her voice dives deep into her lower register, and it definitely sounds like there's some fury in her questions, as though she's squaring off against anyone who types "thoughts and prayers" without taking the action that might answer someone else's thoughts and prayers.
The gospel-soul icon's third set with producer-collaborator Jeff Tweedy shows his touch more prominently than ever: For the first time he's penned all the songs (including three co-writes with Staples), recording them with his son Spencer, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and various Chicago multitaskers. The result is an object lesson in collaborative activism, with Staples tilting away from Sixties R&B formalism but doubling down on topicality. "This life surrounds you/The guns are loaded" she declares on the opener, "Little Bit," detailing the terrorized mindset in black communities that police violence normalizes, with razor-wire guitar tones bursting like thrown bottles across a stuttered funk groove.
With If All I Was Was Black, Mavis Staples trades on the same aspirational and inspirational style of political commentary that defined the Staple Singers in the 1960s, offering a refreshingly optimistic, if anachronistic, perspective in an era saturated with oppressively toxic rhetoric. To shape her message, Staples once again turns to Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who's produced three of Staples's last four albums. If All I Was Was Black escalates their partnership: Tweedy not only produced the album, but wrote all 10 of its songs.
On the surface, the combination of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and gospel legend Mavis Staples seems incongruous. After all, Wilco's edgy, often experimental rock isn't a natural extension from the innate soulful qualities and deep-seated church music that have been Staples' calling card for the better part of six decades. But two previous albums produced by Tweedy have proven the partnership to be a somewhat surprisingly successful meeting of the minds.
Mavis Staples has been a steadfast presence in American music since the 1960s. Through her decades with the Staple Singers and into her solo career, she's adjusted her sound and her collaborators to fit the times. Her third collaboration with Jeff Tweedy, If All I Was Was Black, suggests that Staples, now in her late seventies, is perhaps more sensitive to the world around her than ever, and has the right credentials to usher the younger generations through.