“Let’s do it again!” says Mavis Staples to Jeff Tweedy in her CD notes for You Are Not Alone, their 2010 collaboration and Grammy winner in the Americana category. And so they have. And although there are continuities between that album and its sequel, One True Vine, you can’t say the gospel great and the Wilco boss repeat themselves.
Once again Tweedy produces, plays guitars, bass and keyboards (his teenage son Spencer is the drummer) and contributes several new songs, including the title track. The new album’s selections are, like its predecessor’s, a mix of originals and covers of secular and sanctified material. Staples will turn 74 this year, but her throaty contralto remains a marvel; she imbues everything she touches with commitment and deep soul. Today’s graduates of the American Idol school of exhibitionistic over-singing should be forced to sit down, shut up and listen hard to Staples, a master of devastating restraint.
One True Vine, though, is a departure from its predecessor – less exuberant, starker and more pensive. Take the opening number, “Some Holy Ghost”, by Alan Sparhawk of the Minnesota trio, Low. Staples sings with gravity over a strummed acoustic guitar, the fine backup singers (Donny Gerrard and Kelly Hogan from You Are Not Alone, plus Tiffany “Makeda” Francisco) providing churchy support. But the lyrics, despite their Christian imagery, don’t offer a forthright declaration of faith. The spirit being evoked isn’t the Holy Spirit; it’s “some holy ghost” whose presence she senses but, “I don’t see anything.” There’s more spiritual unease (and uncertainty?) than uplift: “I don’t know much / But I can tell when something’s wrong / And something’s wrong.”
On the gripping “Every Step”, by Tweedy, Staples sings that she has “found grace”. But she doesn’t deliver the good news with a joyous shout. If the Lord knows her “every step of the way”, she sounds a little spooked by a deity who comes across like Sting the stalker in “Every Breath You Take”. Tweedy’s lean arrangement, with its electric guitar ostinato, subtle bass and his son Spencer’s precise and unobtrusive drumming, give the song an air more foreboding than exultant.
As on You Are Not Alone, Staples turns to the songbook of her late father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, founder and leader of the Staples Singers, the modern gospel group that featured Mavis and included her sisters Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne. The Staples were closely identified with the Civil Rights movement, and their songs blended spirituality with social commentary and political protest. Pops’ “I Like the Things About Me”, one of the more upbeat tracks on One True Vine, is all about racial pride and self-acceptance: “There was a time / I wished my hair was fine / And I can remember when / I wished my lips were thin / Oh, but now I wonder/why should I be surprised / I like the things about me that I once despised.” But Tweedy’s edgy guitar skronk suggests the self-acceptance was hard-won, out of painful struggle.
On her first outing with Tweedy, Staples covered Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It”, a man’s reassurance to his woman that as long as they stick together, they’ll overcome their financial setbacks. Finance and romance reappear on One True Vine with “Can You Get to That”, by none other than George Clinton, who recorded it with Funkadelic. But instead of optimism in the face of adversity, there’s this admonition: “When you base your love on credit / And your loving days are done / Checks you signed with love and kisses / Later come back signed ‘insufficient funds’.”
Tweedy’s “Jesus Wept”, despite its title, never actually name checks the Nazarene, and Staples could just as well be singing to a lover: “I should have told you / I could live without you / But I don’t want to.” There’s no such ambiguity in Nick Lowe’s “Far Celestial Shore”, with its utopian vision of Heaven as a realm of peace and abundance where “I’ll see my Lord”. Staples returns to that theme on “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” which, with “Sow Good Seeds”, is one of two traditional gospel songs. Staples is superb on both, and Tweedy and the band support her impeccably, with keyboards, electronics and horns on the former, and country-ish slide guitar, bass and drums on the latter.
One True Vine might seem a low key, modest album. And it is a short one, its 10 tracks barely totaling 35 minutes. At first, I felt it compared unfavorably to You Are Not Alone. I was wrong. It’s a rich, beautifully crafted and moving experience, and further evidence that the Mavis Staples/Jeff Tweedy partnership is the musical equivalent of a marriage made in heaven. Let’s hope it produces more progeny as fine as their first two.