I’ll Take You There. Respect Yourself. The Weight. Three recordings featuring the voice of Mavis Staples, subject of new documentary Mavis and, along with Nina and Billie, the most respected, politically-charged soulful female voice of Black America.
Mavis has just put out Livin’ on a High Note, her 13th solo album and 42nd she has appeared on overall. Jude Rogers interviewed her for the Guardian this month, and Mavis spoke tenderly about David Bowie, whom she met while opening for Prince. In a ‘could have been rock history’ moment, Mavis says she turned down Bob Dylan’s proposal in the 1960s, when they met at music festivals and kept up written correspondence at the start of the ‘rock era’.
Her last record in 2013 was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, while Livin’ on a High Note has its knobs twiddled by M Ward, the ‘him’ with Zooey Deschanel on She & Him. Both men respect American music and pioneer their own sounds, so like the one before this a perfect combination of rock, soul and pop, with the cherry of Mavis’s voice on top, which does not get boring no matter how many times you rotate the album.
Inspired by Pharrell, her new album is full of joy and optimism. Long-haired why-ain’t-she-a-star Valerie June wrote High Note, which has a kick-ass chorus. We can imagine the chorus cycling round an arena for 15 minutes in a Mavis concert, a sort of secular spirituality. She tours the US this year at, remember, the age where most ladies have retired to their grandchildren.
Take Us Back, written by blues-rock’s version of Hansel from Zoolander (Benjamin Booker), is the opener, which uses backing vocals to drive the song on and a killer guitar sound to ground the sound in American roots music. Love and Trust borrows the backing vocals of Golden Years by Bowie (“wop-wop-wop!”) in an affectionate homage, while Mavis sings a lyric that could well be Bob Dylan’s, full of similes and with the hook: ‘Haven’t we suffered enough?…Do all you can, do what you must/ Everybody’s tryin’ to find some love and trust.’ It’s the highlight of the album from a musical standpoint and may help Mavis retain her status as American Roots Performance Grammy winner.
Or maybe it will be Jesus Lay Down Beside Me, written (and you can just imagine him singing it too) by the great Nick Cave. If It’s a Light has gorgeous instrumentation, with brass, piano, guitar and a choir of angels around Mavis. Merrill Garbus aka TuneYards wrote Action, which is full of her characteristic vocal percussiveness and a great lyric: ‘Who’s gonna do it if I don’t?’
Another indie superstar – and friend of Yeezy – Bon Iver wrote Dedicated, a slow shuffle of a tune (‘If it’s us against the world, I’d still bet on us to come out on top’ is a great line). Neko Case of The New Pornographers, meanwhile, wrote History Now, with its line ‘Do we go in like a surgeon? Do we go in like a bomb?’ reverberating in the speakers.
The most arresting song is MLK Song, the album closer. Mavis has spent her whole career as one of the voices of the black experience – The Staple Singers, led by her dad Pops, sung at many events in the 1960s. “In the crawl for justice I helped somebody run/ In the walk for the hungry I fed someone,” goes the chorus. It seems Mavis is writing her own obituary, but she won’t be going to her maker just yet.
The twelve songs form an astonishing set of music written by Americans (and Canadians) for America (and Canada). She has been doing this since she was a little girl, though, and at this point in time it’just plain effortless for the mighty Mavis.