An icon frees her voice by revisiting the past she could never escape.
For some singers, becoming an icon is a ticket for life-long success. Others, sadly, spend their lives standing in their own shadow, never recapturing the power and popularity of their early successes. While Mavis Staples's gift for kick-ass testifying makes her one of the most distinctive soul voices of the past 50 years, she has been weighed down by her work in the '60s at the front of the legendary Staples Singers. Guided by patriarch Pop Staples, the family group expanded their audience beyond the African American gospel world as emblems of musical resistance to segregation. And while Mavis Staples has recorded several solo albums in the past 40 years, her diminished audience has largely put on her records hoping to hear echoes of the music she made with her father and sisters.
This new album is essentially a memoir of the days that defined Mavis Staples, a return to the Civil Rights Movement and its music. Its title, We'll Never Turn Back, takes on an ironic cast. Literally, Staples is turning back to a 50-year-old repertoire accompanied in part by other veteran musicians who made their names fighting segregation. But in a figurative sense, the album rightly to emphasizes the theme of breaking free of the past. Perhaps We'll Never Turn Back will finally position Staples to make music that is not overshadowed by her historic stature. Because she is exploring her place in the Civil Rights Movement head on, the listener no longer strains to discover the Mavis Staples of the 1960s hidden inside the Mavis Staples of today. The thoroughly up-to-date sound of We'll Never Turn Back allows the listener to share in the power of Staples's musical memories without the suspicion that she's trying to relive them one more time. She is a mature artist finding value in her past, not trying to turn back time.
We'll Never Turn Back's opening track makes clear the album's rules of engagement. If you only heard the lyrics, "Down in Mississippi" would be nothing more than a period piece describing the dark days of segregation. "As far back as I can remember," Staples sings, "I either had a plow or a hoe...", working in the hot Black Belt sun. Danger was everywhere -- someone would go to jail for shooting a rabbit out of the hunting season, but "the season was always open on me...". Water fountains were segregated; so were "washaterias".
But the song's musical backdrop is more indebted to Moby's folklorically infused electronica album Play than to '60s protest music or gospel. (Songs like "Down in Mississippi" ape Play so much that they sound like lost tracks from the album.) Jim Keltner's spacious and determined drumming reflects the decades of change wrought by rock and hip-hop. The cyclical song structure and cubist chord changes -- the ensemble shifts in tandem as if someone turned a modulator wheel -- reveal the influence of post-disco dance music. The musical elements that hearken back to the Mississippi about which Staples sings -- a slide guitar, an acoustic mandolin, and the voices of Staples's fellow Civil Rights Icons, the SNCC Freedom Singers (who have basically chosen to preserve their '60s sound in amber) -- provide anachronistic contrasts rather than an anchor dragging us back in time.
Later tracks are as much neo-Motown as Moby knock-offs (a sound popularized by the 2002 film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown), but the arrangements consistently put distance between Staples and her past. She shakes powerful Civil Rights Era songs free of the layers of clichéd idealism that have tarnished them in the eyes of modern audiences. No aging hippies holding hands here. Staples's rendition of such tunes as "Eyes on the Prize", "On My Way", "This Little Light of Mine", and "99 and a Half" remind the listener that these musical gems remain among America's most powerful music, not just historical monuments to a political movement. It seems Staples found the Civil Rights Movement's semi-official anthem, "We Shall Overcome", so hackneyed as to be beyond redemption. That's a shame -- this is the first setting in which I could imagine the song's power being uncovered from beneath layers of contrived attempts at racial reconciliation.
Staples works through her Civil Rights legacy with the help of producer and guitarist Ry Cooder. Though Cooder initially built a reputation as an important rock sideman and session musician in the '60s and '70s, he is best-known today for navigating the world's forgotten musical eddies and bringing them attention (and commercial success) in the American mainstream. Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club project brought Cuban music to your local Starbucks.
In some ways, Staples could not have had a better partner for this endeavor. Cooder is an unarguably brilliant and versatile musician who has a knack for listening for an artist's unique talents with one ear, while keeping the other open for a project's commercial appeal. And his reputation for dusting off hidden musical treasures will undoubtedly give We'll Never Turn Back a commercial reach it would not have had without Cooder's name attached to it. Look for We'll Never Turn Back at your local Starbucks, as well.
While it's unfortunate that a musician of Mavis Staples's caliber needs Ry Cooder's help to get attention, Cooder deserves praise for making the album both musically and commercially stronger. But its musical sophistication creates the danger that Staples’s underlying message -- that racism is still a toxic force in 21st century America -- will get lost as it climbs the charts. Baby boomers may buy We'll Never Turn Back merely to hear how Cooder has updated yet another rootsy musical style. They may be impressed, while the music is playing, with how fresh he's helped make these old tunes sound. And they may express pleasure that an icon like Mavis Staples is making music worthy of her talents when talking about it with their friends.
But their aesthetic appreciation may drown out the political message Staples clearly wants to convey. The one song on the album that Staples penned herself testifies to her frustration that racism remains a cancer on American society. "It's been almost 50 years" since the Civil Rights Era, she laments. "We need a change now more than ever. Somebody tell me: Why are we still treated so bad?"
Because this album's music is so strong, ironically, it risks being tuned out. Mark Twain is famously quoted as having said that the only thing worse than banning something is making it official. The ritualized tributes to heroes of the '50s and '60s by those in public life are never accompanied by observations that the Civil Rights Movement failed to achieve so many of its key goals. The crimes of white supremacy are portrayed as belonging solely to the past -- commemorating the Movement ironically serves to obscure the fact that Americans are still called to fight racism. African American youngsters are still far more likely to live in poverty and attend inadequate schools; young black men are far more likely to go to prison than attend college; in some states, elderly African Americans are still being intimidated by the police when they try to vote. Though Staples struggles to use her gritty voice and dark lyrics to make this point, the album’s sound is so easy on the ears that it is extremely tempting to let it drown out the challenging sentiments of her words. I mean, who wants to think about enduring racism when they can just enjoy some good tunes over a latte at the local Starbucks?