There are all sorts of clichés to describe the cyclical nature of time: “Everything old is new again”; “History repeats itself”; “The more things change, the more they stay the same”; and others. This particular moment in time feels like a grab bag of eras colliding. While young adults are sporting the acid wash of the ’80s, Beltway politicians are re-enacting the corruption of the ’70s and racist zealots are raging with the segregationist violence of the ’60s. It’s all a mess. But, in the middle of the madness, rings out a voice that has been with us through it all — Mavis Staples.
On her new album, We Get By, Mavis continues the work she’s been doing for nearly 70 years — the work of reminding us who we are or, perhaps, who we can and should be if we stand on the right side of history and live with love for our neighbors. Much like with Livin’ on a High Note, these songs were clearly written explicitly for Mavis and she, of course, is more than up to the task of delivering them with equal parts punch and poise. There’s just no one else like Mavis.
Produced and written by Ben Harper, the set kicks off with the bluesy chug of, aptly, “Change,” a tune that Pops and the other Staple Singers could have easily worked their way through. Here, though, it’s just Mavis, impressing upon us the urgency of the moment’s need for change. Somehow, despite all the progress of the past and backslides of late that’s she’s witnessed, Mavis never exudes despair. There may also be hints of frustration and slivers of disbelief, but there’s always — ALWAYS — a glimmer of hope shimmering through her voice.
As with all things Mavis, her family, blood and otherwise, is ever-present in her work and heart, and these songs allow space for that part of her truth, both musically and lyrically. That is especially true on the gently poignant “We Get By,” a duet with Harper, and the fiercely soulful “Brothers and Sisters.”
Anyone that’s seen the Mavis! documentary knows how deeply she feels the losses in her life, of not just Pops and other Staples family members, but also friends like Levon Helm. That grief is likely the well she draws from for a gut-wrenching and guttural rendering of “Heavy on My Mind.”
On song after song, Mavis is both fearless and feisty, leaning into her gospel roots on one track and her blues background on another without ever missing a beat. We should all stand so firmly in our convictions and joy as Mavis Staples does in every moment of her 80 years… and counting.