In her seventies, gospel-R&B legend Mavis Staples has emerged as perhaps the hardest-working singer of her generation, releasing more albums of original material over the past decade (five, and counting) than even her famously prolific contemporary Willie Nelson. Beginning with the rebirth of 2010’s You Are Not Alone, Staples has cycled through a series of taste-making producers (Jeff Tweedy, M Ward) and a host of younger songwriters to create material that fits her prophetic voice.
On her new album, We Get By, Ben Harper serves as Staples’ newest collaborator, writing and producing a series of defiant declarations of peace, justice and heartbreak. From the charging electric blues of “Change” to the modern soul protest of “Brothers and Sisters,” Staples further refines the type of socially conscious artistry she rediscovered on 2017’s If All I Was Was Black, in the wake of horrors like Charlottesville and Trump’s child-separation policy.
But Staples, who lost her sister Yvonne last year, is at her best here when she’s exposing a rare vulnerability or further bolstering (and commenting on) her own mythology. Folk ballads like “Heavy on My Mind” and “Never Needed Anyone” find the singer bruised and bleeding with grief as she wrestles with loss and loneliness. “Now all that we are,” she moans on the former, “is the living ghost of our youth.”
When she’s not mourning, Staples doubles down on the type of communal love and faith-preaching that have been her trademarks ever since she served as the lead vocalist of Staple Singers classics like “Respect Yourself” and “Freedom Highway.” “We Get By” is a convincing anthem of persistence sung as a duet with Harper. “Anytime,” meanwhile, finds the singer relishing her own success and survival: “I’m rock, paper scissors,” she sings with piercing emphasis, “and I’m bound to win.”
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But it’s not until the closing track, “One More Change,” that Staples’ indefatigable spirit shines through most clearly. The song is a late-in-life mission statement for an artist who’s spent her career espousing radical positivity and collective action. “Believing too deep to not have faith,” Staples sings, sounding determined in her twilight offering, so much so that the very act of singing the song fulfills the righteous promise laid out in its full-hearted chorus: “But I’ve got just one more change to make.”