Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
Anti – 17 November 2017
Soul matriarch and gospel legend Mavis Staples is taking a stand at the microphone with If All I Was Was Black: the follow-up to her highly successful 2016 album Livin’ on a High Note. By swaying back towards her protest song roots she has tapped into the tempo of the times. Mavis, a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement in her own right, welcomes friend Jeff Tweedy of Wilco to the stage for this colourful collaboration. Together they deliver something poignant yet purposeful.
Though Tweedy composed the entire album, it seems clear that he could not have done so without inspiration from his muse Mavis. Audaciously positive and enamoured of the American dream, this Staples-Tweedy collaboration is an anthology for the soul. Within a melding of cross-generational styles and universally palpable feelings about the state of the world—particularly the state of American race relations—the scene is set for Staples and Tweedy’s full throttle ode to civil disobedience. Like a dash of R&B upon a palette of rock n’ roll, If All I Was Was Black is the perfect mix of old and new, and it is rousing to the last millisecond.
In If All I Was Was Black, Mavis Staples is singing to see a change. She howls flashback-harkening mantras: “People are dying. Bullets are flying.” But, for each sombre reality, she reminds the world that there is “no time for tears. We’ve got work to do.” If All I Was Was Black evokes the optimism of a young counterculture, delivered with the know-how of the generation who reinvented the protest song. In “We Go High,” Mavis sings a quote from Michelle Obama. “We go high when they go low.” She presses upon her audience, “I know they’re still human, and they need my love.” She is grounded, determined, questioning the motives of the world’s leaders, but knowing there is always hope.
If All I Was Was Black fits this moment like a glove. It harnesses tumult with delicate fortitude, encapsulating rage and dissent like a bullet sealed in a bottle. This album makes a startling impression from beginning to end and even bears a title that forces us to bare our souls: if you saw only race, imagine all of the things you would overlook. With her hand on the pulse of forebears like Billie Holiday and fellow legends like Marvin Gaye, Mavis asks her fans to rethink how they see her and what it means to be a Black woman. “If all I was was black, looking at you you might look past all the love I give.”
This is an album that invents and re-invents. Jeff Tweedy uses minimalistic, fuzzy blues guitar in truly novel ways. His electric instrumentation is layered like a cake. All the ingredients are precisely measured with nothing left out. In songs like “Who Told You That” Mavis is accompanied by little more than a stripped-down guitar lick and easy, danceable drum beat. Background vocals are carefully placed, a compliment to Mavis’s prowess as a leading lady and a nod to the legacy of the Staple Singers.
But, Staples and Tweedy leave room for a few more traditional folk songs as well. “Peaceful Dream” is a beaming, warm singalong. “…Peaceful dream, peaceful dream. Come and share my peaceful dream.” Through clap-along beats and handmade melodies, Tweedy opens a nostalgic channel for listeners to revisit all the reasons we came to love the Staple Singers and Mavis Staples. The album closes with “All Over Again,” a fleeting piece with the oaky glow of the later works of Leonard Cohen. Leaving us with a personal sentiment, “Sometimes I have regrets, but I ain’t done yet,” Tweedy and Staples impart the feeling that every witness to this tumultuous era has both internal and external struggles. To seek a balance is to be human.
Throughout this work, Mavis Staples employs simple gestures of compassion to shake the ground we walk on. With rhythms that fluctuate from “protest march” to “jazz club, 1965,” she and friend Jeff Tweedy prove again and again the power of artful nostalgia. These two make a masterful pair and blend the perfect concoction of protest and memory. Like living history, If All I Was Was Black is a sweet sojourn towards a collective truth and an earthy ode to the rhythm of rebellion.
If All I Was Was Black is Out Now. Order via Amazon