For Mavis Staples’s 80th birthday the great and the good from across the musical spectrum came together in three concerts that celebrated the legacy of an artist who has been bringing light to the world for decades and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. As a force for harmony and unity there are few who can touch her. She’s skateboarding her way into the twilight of her career with more confidence than ever.
Ben Harper produced and wrote most of the songs on the album, a strategy that worked well when Jeff Tweedy did the same on If All I Was Was Black in 2017. That brilliant album is a tough act to follow, and despite the title Change sensibly aims for a continuation of the ideas of that project rather than an attempt to alter her course.
The album begins with some sharp electric guitar, and an invite for ‘Change’. Believe in the power of positive thinking in the face of ‘bullets flying’ and ‘Mothers crying’. Witnessing violence and hatred is soul destroying. Change needs to happen Anywhere, anyway, anyhow.
Producer and writer Ben Harper joins Mavis on the duet We Get By, one of the best songs on the album. It’s an admittance that life might throw things in your face every now and again but if you have someone to walk through the storms with then maybe you can endure. Harper does excellent work on this album so it is nice to hear him sing too. In a recent interview Mavis said of Harper and her other recent collaborators, ‘It seems that the Lord just puts me with genius. These guys, from Dylan on, they’re just geniuses. I don’t go out looking for them. They just come to me, and it always turns out that they’re the right people.’ While she no longer writes music herself there’s always a sense that the songs are a reflection of her soul and spirit, written by friends who understand what she wants to say.
Brothers and Sisters reminds those who’ve gone down the wrong path that they can always find a way back. She warns us about an untrustworthy man and even if his name is never mentioned, the subtext of America’s political crisis is clear. The only way she sees to fight back is through song.
Heavy on my Mind is an admittance that sometimes she falls into the ‘well’ of despair. Everyone does. The echoing guitar creates a moment of introspection and intimacy. She sings a song to bring herself out of the darkness, so no wonder it’s her favourite on the album.
Sometime is about giving, with the implication that there’s too many people who take, take, take. Mavis believes in singing for change, to keep us moving towards a better life. Maybe some might think anger is the required response to times of crisis but that has never been the way of the Staples Family – they have always prided themselves on promoting peace, love and faith much like their friend MLK himself. That harmonious centre is what holds this record together. A hope for a better future. Or at least a hope that by being kind and good we can go someway to offset the damage caused by evil in the world.
Never Needed Anyone is a more personal take on life and relationships. Stronger and Chance On Me are also love songs which aim to raise us up. These songs in the latter half of the record are enjoyable but perhaps lack the power and melody of some of the others.
There’s a bittersweet feeling to the final song One More Change, which appears to be about mortality. The lyrics suggest that Mavis is ready to embrace the inevitable end of her life with the same euphoric good spirits that she has imbued when alive. It’s a moment of touching tenderness to conclude an album that brims with soul and life.
Maybe she’s preaching to the choir somewhat but we all need to be reminded about the power of singing together. There’s work to do yet to achieve the dream.
I want to finish with some advice from Mavis herself which I think sums up the message of this album. Don’t look down, you know? Keep looking up. Keep a light in your mind. Stay in a light place. Lets hope she keeps giving us words and songs to live by for a long time yet.
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