In 1972, the Staple Singers lodged themselves at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and cemented their place in soul history by singing of a place where nobody’s crying, nobody’s worrying, and nobody’s “lying to the races.” “I’ll take you there,” Mavis Staples and her family promised. As neatly as could be, the song distilled gospel and soul’s deepest yearning: for deliverance.
Over the last 45 years, Mavis Staples has never stopped singing about the dream of a better world, nor has she ignored the political reality that makes such a dream necessary. Her third album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the nourishing and nuanced If All I Was Was Black, arrives with a retelling from her label about her experiences with prejudice in the ’60s and her participation in the civil-rights movement. “Nothing has changed,” Staples said this year. “We are still in it.”
Staples’s first album with Tweedy, 2010’s You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy and wide acclaim with a rich, enveloping take on the classic sounds that have long accompanied Staples’s husky and nimble voice. If All I Was Was Black, the first Staples album written as well as produced by Tweedy (and recorded with players from the Wilco extended family), is a more mysterious, rock-rooted work that sees Tweedy balancing his traditionalism and experimentalism and Staples her inspirational and realist sides. Where you’d expect the songs to explode in gospel-glory climaxes, he and Staples often pull back, setting off sparklers rather than sky fire. It’s a technique that, perhaps, reflects the unfinished nature of the political project Staples sings about.