If All I Was Was Black
What a decade it’s been for Mavis Staples – riding on a high note ever since 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back with a constant victory-lap of touring and this now deep collaboration with Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco. It hasn’t all been amazing, I couldn’t get too excited about last year’s album even though the earlier EP had shown very good things. But the records have never been bad – it was just starting to feel like a safe place, that’s all.
But If All I Was Was Black shows Staples at her finest since We’ll Never Turn Back and prove that the Tweedy collaboration is far from over, it’s also Tweedy’s best set of songs since Wilco’s middle period.
He’s capable of creating material for Staples that speaks to her Staples Singers gospel/folk roots (Peaceful Dream) and hits on the good grit of her earthiest recordings across the last decade (No Time For Crying). But it’s still Tweedy’s voice in there – even when channelling Staples’. When he joins her to duet on Ain’t No Doubt About It we’re hearing what could have been one of the better Wilco songs of recent years, or would have slotted in certainly on Tweedy’s lovely wee acoustic run-through of band songs.
But what links this back to We’ll Never Turn Back in particular is both the potency of many of the lyrics (the opener, Little Bit, is the first clue that we’re in for something good, the title track follows and the chooglin’ groove of No Time For Crying supports a tough reminder – “we got work to do” that Staples is still on her journey) and the slow-burning snarl of her great band. Turn Back featured Ry Cooder’s playing and production, so no complaints there, but since then it’s been Rick Holmstrom at the helm. He sits in behind Staples in a way that hasn’t happened since Pops was leading the band. She’s the proud instrument, her voice, her energy, her charisma – her soul (in all senses of the word). And Holmstrom and Tweedy know that. Even when Tweedy’s lyrics fall back into his slightly obscure shapes there’s something proud and strong in Staples’ delivery, she removes the layers of obfuscation.
If Drive-By Truckers predicted Trump’s win and set a tone of weariness and worry, then Jeff Tweedy has assisted Mavis Staples in delivery the stoicism America – and the world – needs now; a set of songs that is on point but can be enjoyed for the 70s soul/funk/gospel grooves. And it’s her best album in a decade – a productive decade, a decade of music that has brought plenty of joy (not just the records, particularly the touring). And Staples continues to sound like she’s having a blast, is deeply connected with the material and is simply out there continuing the job and journey, doing what she was born to do.