We Get By, for the first time in the current Staples era, plays as a bit of a mixed bag.
At some point, Mavis Staples might accept the status quo. She might just figure she’s been doing this for 60 years or so and she’s put in her time and now it’s time to put her feet up. Maybe she’ll just watch some American Idol with a bit of bemusement and a bit of optimism, and maybe she’ll talk about the good old days. Of course, with every album she releases, that future feels less and less likely. Staples, with both a live album and new studio album We Get By out this year, continues to push for change.
We Get By starts with an obvious change, as she works with Ben Harper, who wrote and produced these 11 songs. Harper makes for no more unlikely a collaborator than Jeff Tweedy or M. Ward, and these recordings bear out the good sense of this match. Staples – backed by just guitar, bass and drums – gets into the swampy roots that could have come straight from Stax. The musicians put plenty of guts into the music, but everything remains spare enough that Staples’ vocals stay at the fore, where they should be. Staples still sounds great, and it’s difficult to believe we’re listening to an almost octogenarian. Partly her voice doesn’t really age, and partly it’s just that she sounded mature and powerful from the time she first picked up a microphone.
Unfortunately, the songs themselves don’t serve her quite as well as those from her last few albums. Much of the album focuses on the need for change (the opening and closing tracks are titled “Change” and “One More Change”), but it never finds specificity. It also leads to too few surprises: Harper writes as someone well versed in the Staples oeuvre, but he mostly writes to fit into it. There’s plenty of talk of getting by “through thick and through thin” and standing by each other and continuing on, but it functions more like a recapitulation of previous work rather than a renewed call to struggle or a necessary piece of encouragement.
Some of the less characteristic music works best. “Never Needed Anyone” lets Staples be vulnerable, and her ability to demonstrate complex feelings in retrospect makes for a particularly compelling track. “Chance on Me” grooves slow and deep, and Staples turns the request, “Take a chance on me” into something that’s half a plea and half a command. She doesn’t phone in anything on the record, and her ability to bring out the fullness of a lyric comes through experience and careful attention to delivery. This sort of performance stands out, because it requires much more than just a strong voice, and Staples, even when she’s restrained, is never reserved.
We Get By, for the first time in the current Staples era, plays as a bit of a mixed bag. Fans should find it comfortable, and – while there’s nothing too objectionable in the disc’s ease – it doesn’t hit the way her last few records have. Even so, Staples turns in yet another strong performance. Harper’s production matches the needs of the songs perfectly. His writing could use some tightening on this album, but it does circle around the essence of Staples’ sensibilities. A Mavis Staples near-miss still has a handful of excellent tracks, and even the other ones have their own sort of potency. Staples continues to be one of the most vital vocalists around, a status that’s unlikely to change.