Mavis Staples: Livin' on a High Note

The singer belts out anthems for a new civil-rights crossroads

Credit: Chris Strong

Pairing a veteran singer with next-generation material is a crapshoot conceit, and odds drop when the songs are commissioned instead of curated. But after two Jeff Tweedy-produced LPs did for her what Rick Rubin's benchmark American Recordings did for Johnny Cash, Mavis Staples takes her comeback higher still with this set, using an A list of songwriters informed, but not bound, by roots music. Valerie June, Ben Harper, Justin Vernon, Aloe Blacc and Nick Cave all rise powerfully to the occasion. Credit the challenge of writing for an icon who addresses spiritual and political matters with minimal abstraction: You either step up, or step off.
 
Benjamin Booker's "Take Us Back" is a standout, a celebration of self via community, with Staples rocking a startling flow somewhere between Millie Jackson and Kanye West. "Action," by Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus, speaks to #BlackLivesMatter in language echoing Civil Rights-era anthems; ditto Neko Case's "History," which asks pointedly, "Do we go in like a surgeon? Do we go in like a bomb?" Producer M. Ward keeps the focus on Staples' earthy, still-agile voice, and her longtime bandmates. He also pens two of the strongest tracks, the dreamy gospel rocker "Don't Cry," and the unplugged "MLK Song." The latter is a lean country blues, with words drawn from a 1968 sermon by Dr. King, who Staples can fairly call family. "In the march for peace," she testifies, "tell them I played the drum." She still does.