Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone
She’ll take you there
Though now on the far side of 70, Mavis Staples remains one of American music’s national treasures, with a smoldering voice that’s as compelling today as it was 40 years ago on Staple Singers’ hits like “Respect Yourself.” Likely the only singer whose resume includes collaborations with Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan and Prince, she affirmed her vitality on 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, produced by Ry Cooder. This time around, Jeff Tweedy is the lucky guy at the helm, and he’s done Staples justice, giving the album throwback flourishes and a modern aesthetic.
Throughout You Are Not Alone, shimmering, bluesy electric guitar echoes the brilliant playing of the late “Pops” Staples, and Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor (of Neko Case’s band) contribute fervent backing vocals, but Tweedy has made no attempt to mimic traditional gospel. The production is bright and clear, and the arrangements showcase the star. Mixing sacred material with a few secular songs, Staples emphasizes the kinder, more humanistic version of her faith on toe-tapping cuts like “You Don’t Knock” and “In Christ There Is No East or West,” but stokes the fire-and-brimstone of her father’s beliefs on the stomping “Downward Road.” Two Tweedy originals, including the hushed title track, are beautiful and uplifting. (If only he’d bring some of the same emotional directness to Wilco’s often-overthought records.)
Elsewhere, Little Milton’s buoyant “We’re Gonna Make It” embodies Staples’ perseverance in the face of trouble, but the cover of Randy Newman’s heartbroken “Losing You” doesn’t work—it hardly seems to be in the soul legend’s nature to express defeat. She makes up for it with the triumphant closing medley “Too Close to Heaven/I’m on My Way to Heaven Anyhow,” where she flirts with the ecstatic verbal repetition of raw, old-time gospel. Whatever your beliefs, it’ll lift your soul.