We Get By
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
At this late stage, it would be easy for Mavis Staples to either retire or just stay on the road playing the songs that made her a living legend. But that’s not how she rolls.
Rather, the 80-year-old gospel icon has been on a tear over the past five years, already releasing a live album earlier in 2019 after delivering studio sets of fresh material in 2016 and 2017. That’s an aggressive schedule for any musician, let alone one who has been singing professionally for 60 years. Even more impressive is that Staples has become one of the few gospel singers to cross over to a secular audience without abandoning the positivity and religious concepts she’s been singing about her entire life.
Following successful projects helmed by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and M. Ward, Staples joins with Ben Harper for her twelfth solo release. Harper not only produced these sessions but he wrote the songs too, making it a true collaboration between singer and songwriter. It’s arguably her finest, most moving and cohesive disc which, considering her extensive catalog, is saying plenty.
It’s a given that Staples could sing a fast food menu and make it worth hearing due to her grainy, instantly recognizable style. But Harper has penned eleven tuneful, sympathetic and sensitive tunes allowing the singer to wrap around material that reflects the blues, soul and especially religious themes at the core of her vision. From the opening slow burn Chicago shuffle of “Change” (“what good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free”) to the shimmering mid-tempo gospel of “Stronger” and the more upbeat church ready “Sometime,” these songs not only mirror Staples’ positive life view and a (likely politically motivated) need for greater acceptance, but have choruses and hooks that stick with you long after the last notes fade. Harper’s lyrics of “We get by on love and faith” on “We Get By,” Mavis’ sparse, soulful duet with singer Donny Gerrard, could have been sung at any time in her long career.
It helps that Staples’ longtime band featuring extraordinary guitarist Rick Holmstrom, bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges is on hand to provide tough yet tensile, often swampy, always righteous support, making these performances shimmer and sparkle.
Harper dials down Staples’ often fire and brimstone attack to a more subtle, less aggressive approach that still connects beautifully with this relatively understated material. Additionally it showcases just how strong, sturdy, flexible and resonant her singing remains when many others her age have long since found their voices have weakened.
It’s unusual when discussing legendary artists to recommend newcomers start with their most recent release, as opposed to cherry picking older tracks. But in the case of the phenomenal We Get By, novices to Staples’ iconic voice may want to begin here and work their way back.