Mavis Staples is a national treasure. The 78-year old singer’s voice has been an important spiritual companion in America’s struggle for equality and dignity since the 1950s; that unique, deep tone possesses a connection to the most profound of human emotions and has carried messages that speak to the fundamental questions of faith, and above all, hope. Her new album, If All I Was Was Black is meant to be a reflection on today’s political climate, a tale on times of turmoil, but more than anything, a strong, resounding reminder that, even in the nightmare that is the Trump Era, love and unity will conquer.
This record is her third collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as a producer. Tweedy also handles songwriting duties in all the songs, and when it comes to the lyrics, this might be especially divisive. It can be a little unsettling that some of the most sensitive passages regarding racial struggles, police violence and other issues around blackness throughout these 10 songs are actually penned by a white man; he has defended this, telling the L.A Times “I don’t think I put anything in Mavis’ mouth that she didn’t want to sing”. The best defense, though, is her vocal performances themselves — ranging from nostalgic pensiveness to plain anger —, which not only provide emotional heft to these words, they establish the entire dimension of their true meaning.
Because make no mistake — If All I Was Was Black is, first and foremost, a protest album. It shouts about injustice, rants about oppression and spits fire about the need to hold those in power accountable for their continued atrocities against the marginalized. It reflects on the healing power of empathy and solidarity, in the community as a beacon of hope, but it first admits that there is still a lot of work to be done to secure real change, and that good thoughts and prayers mean absolutely nothing without direct action. It is Gospel music in nature, but it offers a call to arms.
Tweedy’s sonic palette for this album also intents to illustrate the struggles highlighted in the words. Here, no-nonsense blues riffs clash with rhythm boxes and looming organ chords, mountainous folk with tight, stingy funk-rock, and of course, dense, deep-rooted gospel choirs with guitar work that honors the traditions of both Wilco and Pops. Opening number “Little Bit” revolves around a hypnotic G riff, reminiscent of North Mississippi-style blues, but with the funky cadence of the Dap-Kings. You can hear fuller band settings in the title-track, in the Michelle Obama-referencing “We Go High” and in the countrified “Ain’t no Doubt About it”, and there are beautiful acoustic tracks in the form of ”Peaceful Dream” and closer “All Over Again”; the former, a cheerful tune aided by handclaps and a choir in which an electric guitar solo and an organ later join in, and the latter, a haunting, low-toned contemplation on the deeds of a long life. A fitting send-off.
However, the record’s strongest tracks are those in which we find the band in full Rock mode. “Who Told You That” brings a fierce, impassioned Mavis singing over a steady-growing cascade of fuzzy guitars and piercing keys — a pure protest song if there is one. The stomping “No Time For Crying” is a blues rock offering that is perfectly paired with Mavis words, especially the chorus line “we got work to do” which here feels like a mantra. “Try Harder” is even heavier and louder, a rock & roll spiritual that goes straight to the point.
It’s quite appropriate that the hardest-rocking numbers are those that carry the most powerful messages. A record that aims to be explicitly political should be a slap in the face, a wake-up call, and this one delivers. And it also makes it clear that the darkest times have only strengthened and emboldened Mavis Staples. She remains an unstoppable warrior, and If All I Was Was Black is proof that her presence in the musical landscape of 2017 is not only welcome but necessary.