Mavis Staples has never shied away from making a statement, going all the way back to the raw vocal power and unshakeable commitment of The Staple Singers’ 1965 civil rights anthem “Freedom Highway.” The records she’s been making on ANTI for the last 15 years — the overt examples being We’ll Never Turn Back and If All I Was Was Black — have been increasingly oriented toward raising consciousness and, considering our country’s current state, we need Staples’ fiery forward momentum more than ever.
The message is clear from the get-go on We Get By, as the dirty, grinding blues riffs of Staples’ bandleader/guitarist Rick Holmstrom power opening cut “Change.” “What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free?” asks Staples, and the band’s gritty rumble underlines her outrage.
Jeff Tweedy produced and wrote her last album, and wasn’t above gently pushing the envelope, but Ben Harper fills the writer/producer role by just letting Mavis be Mavis on We Get By. Harper takes her down a vintage Staple Singers path with the funky “Brothers and Sisters,” and when she sings, “trouble in the land, we can’t trust that man” her intentions aren’t exactly elliptical. The classic vibe is carried forward with Holmstrom’s doomy Pops Staples-style guitar licks on “Heavy on My Mind.”
Staples’ gospel repertoire comes to the fore on the sanctified stomper “Sometime,” when she utilizes simple, gospel-style lyrics to passionately reiterate the need for change. It’s not all current affairs though — for all the biblical allusions, when Mavis sings “Nothing in the world is stronger than my love for you” in blues-rocker “Stronger,” she seems to blur the line between earthly and spiritual. And she allows a peek at her intimate side on when she dips into her sensual side for the slow-burning, love-hungry, “Chance on Me.”
Nearly 80 upon the album’s release, Mavis is the last surviving member of the Staple Singers’ ’70s lineup. But closing out the album by calling for “One More Change,” she makes it plain that her struggle is our struggle, and it goes on.