Staples is still wading into troubled waters, with a voice as bold and relevant as ever.
Mavis Staples is closing in on 80 years old. Her singing career, which started with her family in the Staple Singers, has passed 65 years. She’s been a gospel singer and a protest singer (suggesting the marriage of those worlds isn’t so unlikely); she’s sung with rock stars and country artists. After a lengthy career, some time spent out of the spotlight, and a stellar return more than a decade ago, Staples could take a break. But she hasn’t.
The political climate essentially necessitated her latest album, If All I Was Was Black. With the US in political turmoil, Staples had a statement to make. Working again with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who wrote the songs here, Staples addresses the concerns she has in the Trump era. She’s back in protest mode, matching a new era of civil unrest with a new burst of protest.
This new protest comes wrapped in an updated version of the old sounds. The Americana of a few years back is gone, making way for the R&B grooves most associated with Staples’ earlier work. Tracks like “Try Harder” do occasionally bring more of a rock feel, but the album sounds more like a Stax record than anything else. The band’s tight, but they’re not overly flashy. This one is a Staples statement.
While that statement may be one of protest, the singer doesn’t stick to diatribes or polemics, turning the album into a message of hope above anything else. The title track takes a swipe at racism, but it’s more an announcement of self-confidence, of awareness. Staples hasn’t released an album that simply responds in anger (though there’s plenty of that) or argument; her art itself provides a means of overcoming.
Of course, sometimes that means at least warning shots are fired. “Who Told You That?” suggests that any thoughts of complacency and patience might be misguided. The struggle inherent in these tracks never dissipates. The driving soul of “No Time for Crying” reminds listeners that “we’ve got work to do.” Make no mistake, the resistance work has to happen and Staples has no intention of resting, or of letting anyone rest next to her.
Part of that work is providing uplift within the mess. “We Go High” echoes Michelle Obama’s memorable line from her convention speech. Staples sings that “love is our guide” and turns from Obama to reference Jesus, singing, “I know they don’t know/ What they’re doing.” She acknowledges her own struggles to keep it clean and positive, but ultimately keeps faith in that day when our culture finds great unity. That vision informs her work throughout the album, her still-strong vocals matched with a fiery delivery designed to encourage all of us on to something more.
The album closes with the soft acoustic number “All Over Again,” letting Staples meditate on what’s come before and what she’s doing once again. She ultimately finds a few regrets but refuses to be “done yet.” She’d “do it all over again,” even as it feels like she has to take up old political work once more. If that’s true, it sounds like she’s never stopped. She’s still wading into troubled waters, with a voice as bold and relevant as ever.