Having worked with Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy on a succession of albums over the last decade, the one and only Mavis Staples returns with another unlikely collaborator, M. Ward on her latest album, Livin’ on a High Note. Doubters be warned: Ward, in the parlance of our times, nails it.

Collecting songs from his own notebook as well as Nick Cave, Justin Vernon, Neko Case and Ben Harper, among others, Ward is guaranteed that Staples has nothing but the best material for the record. By setting aside his own personality and instead allowing Staples to shine, he guarantees that the soul and gospel legend is at her absolute best. Ward affords Staples the respect she deserves, and the result is that she sounds natural and relaxed in a way that she hasn’t in some time. And, given her track record for fine records, that’s saying something.

“If It’s A Light,” written by The Head & The Heart, seems culled from one of the classic albums she made with her family more than 40 years ago. This isn’t Mavis covering a rock band, this is a rock band tailoring a song to singer who knows truth from trash. “Action,” a Tune-Yards contribution, feels more contemporary, but Staples still makes it positively sing with her own convictions and ability to emote in proper proportion. Moreover, it’s impossible not to sing along once its hooks have sunk in.

We might expect that pieces penned by her spiritual children and grandchildren, such as Valerie June’s “High Note” or Ben Harper’s “Love and Trust,” have a little more spark and spunk than the others. The fact is that each of these numbers, no matter who wrote them, are excellent matches for our star. Nick Cave’s voice can be foreboding and make it difficult for listeners to know whether they should kneel down and pray or run out the door in search of a stronger holy water, but in Staples’ hands, his “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me” is moving and pure. If it’s not exactly a tune destined for the hymnal, it still deserves the singer it’s received.

Staples is often at her best when singing about uplift, and a perfect example of that is the Aloe Blacc/Jon Batiste-penned “Tomorrow.” Staples may be the only living singer who could suggest that being handed lemons by life could result in lemon cake, and make it sound like a revelation. The song is dedicated to simple emotions and positive thinking, and is all the better for not trying to overcomplicate that. Case’s “History Now” might feel a little wordy at first, but before long the song and its message settle in and we start to believe that this song, like the others, has always been waiting for us to hear it.

Ward’s three writing credits, which include collaboration with Vernon, are especially warm and lovely, icing on the cake that is the rest of the record, and his “MLK Song” may be of the best and purest things he’s ever written. Performed by Staples, it’s an intimate statement as she sounds like she’s sitting next to us, singing the song to us, with us, for us. Livin’ on a High Note is a gift for fans from an artist they love dearly and who loves them back with a purity and intensity that’s entirely too uncommon.

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