As we noted earlier in the year – when her live album recorded on her 2018 London dates was released – Mavis Staples is showing no sign of slowing down, in fact quite the opposite would appear to be the case as she has another European tour coming up (including Glastonbury) and here’s a brand new studio album. Having found rich rewards from collaborating with Jeff Tweedy on previous releases, this time Mavis Staples has worked with Ben Harper who shared production on the album, appears on it and wrote the songs. Is this a case of lightning striking twice? Well…at the risk of making the rest of the review redundant…yes it is, very much so.
It shouldn’t be a surprise though – all the components are in place here. Mavis Staples is in great voice, and Ben Harper is a long time admirer who knows exactly how to write a song that captures her messages of civil rights, optimism, and a rejection of an oppressive government. And love and family and faith.
The majority of the musicians are Mavis Staples’ regular touring band – road hardened and with years of experience in creating a sound to serve this most distinctive of voices. For all that the album sounds great and positive in outlook make no mistake – much of the music on this record is protest music. It’s there from the cover – which reproduces Gordon Parks’ 1956 separatist image ‘Outside Looking In‘ – onwards, even the title ‘We Get By’ : well, isn’t that great? To just get by, to manage, to not be going under, not quite. And then factor in the times – if ever there was a need in recent years for a song like ‘Change‘ then it is right now. Over a heavy guitar riff, and death-knell drumming Mavis Staples lays down the facts, “Gotta change around here / Can’t go on this way” before deploring the grinding social effects of casual gun crime, before punching home with, “What good is freedom / If we haven’t learned to be free?” There’s a message of unity in ‘Brothers and Sisters‘, which funkily declares the need to find change from within – ‘cos there’s no external help coming. As Mavis Staples sings “Trouble in the land / Can’t trust that man / Bring us another plan.”
There’s room for love as well on ‘We Get By‘, from the sultry sensuality of ‘Chance On Me‘ or the warm emotion of ‘Hard to Leave‘ which draws on the sadness of seeing loved ones less often than might be wished for, before the need to, too soon, part again. Mavis Staples imbues this song with an honest tear-filled vocal. The album closer, ‘One More Change‘ hints at an acceptance of mortality, moving from an opening that describes her life right now, “Been running too hard / To slow down” to a point where she can say “I’ve got one more chain to break / One more day to wake / One more step to take“. It’s elegant – of course, and not at all depressing, naturally. And that applies to the whole album.