As soon as she made her first record with her family’s gospel-singing group in the early 1950s, Mavis Staples made it clear that she occupied a vocal and emotional register of her very own. At the age of 14, already she could invest the lines “Won’t be the water / But the fire next time” with an almighty dread. Today, at 78, she may have lost some of the range and raw power of her youth but she retains every ounce of the visceral impact. And in terms of its relevance to the state of the world, her new album, If All I Was Was Black, takes its place among the year’s most essential recordings.
It’s her third album with Jeff Tweedy, the leader of Wilco. Tweedy wrote all 10 songs, three of them in collaboration with Mavis, and plays in the small band assembled for the project. The songwriting is superbly sensitive and appropriate, using various forms of primal guitar-led R&B as settings for lyrics dealing with the racism that has refused to go away in the 50 years since the Staple Singers recorded “Freedom Highway” and played their part in the civil rights struggle.
“Little Bit”, structured on a wiry riff reminiscent of the early Magic Band, deals with the deaths of boys and young men at the hands of the police. “Who Told You That” is similarly stripped-back, putting Mavis and her backing singers firmly in the spotlight as they reject advice not to “rock the boat” and to “stop acting up”. Mavis is at her most urgent on “No Time For Crying”, which hits a relentless groove like a cross between Tinariwen’s desert blues and Otis Taylor’s one-chord chants. “We Go High” marries a famous phrase from Michelle Obama’s speech in support of Hillary Clinton — “When they go low, we go high” — to a gentle, soulful tune that could have come from Curtis Mayfield. “Try Harder” is another exhortation; fuelled by a couple of fuzz guitars and a crunching riff, it could have come from the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” era. The album closes with the meditative “All Over Again”, in which the duet between Mavis and Tweedy’s finger-picked acoustic guitar reminds us that her dad, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, grew up on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, listening to Charley Patton and Son House.
That’s one of the things I love about this deceptively simple-sounding album: in its search for a language with which to express its very immediate concerns, it makes connections with important traditions. Nourished by the deepest roots, it makes a direct and poignant address our own perplexing, disturbing time.
* The photograph of Mavis Staples is by Chris Strong.