REVIEW: Mavis Staples’ “We Get By” is Subtle Gut Punch


Legacy artists making music with their younger admirers is a tricky proposition, at best. For every Van Lear Rose, when Jack White brought a fresh, new feel to Loretta Lynn’s lifetime of amazing music, there’s a Supernatural, where Carlos Santana collaborated with a number of artists, producing a mish-mash much more akin to a soundtrack than a cohesive album (guess which record sold more copies). Mavis Staples, though, has always been a willing partner. From performing with her family in The Staple Singers to recording with Dylan, Prince, George Jones, Arcade Fire, Jeff Tweedy, and many, many more, she’s always enjoyed the collaborative process. Now approaching her 80th birthday, she’s as bold, as experimental, and as fiery as ever. Her newest album, We Get By, produced by Ben Harper, is a subtle gut punch of a record – never overdone, but with a deep social conscience running throughout.

The first song on the album, “Change,” sets the thematic tone, as well a musical one with some good, grungy guitar. Staples and Harper (who wrote nearly all of the material on We Get By) are not happy with the incremental progress (and, sometimes, regression) we’ve made, particularly in her hometown of Chicago: ”Finger on the trigger around here/Bullets flying mothers crying.” And this isn’t a blame game – the song demands change from within the community: “What good is freedom/If we haven’t learned to be free.” “Brothers and Sisters” is a bit more of a slow burn, but the urgency of the message is the same. With her voice simmering somewhere between a purr and a growl, Staples tells us that we “Can’t stay the same/And think everything’s/Gonna change around you.” Virtually every line is a call-and-response, right down to “Trouble in the land/Can’t trust that man/Bring us another plan (brothers and sisters).”

“Heavy On My Mind” goes in a more personal direction. Primarily Staples’ voice and some sublimely understated guitar work from Rick Holmstrom, the song mourns a lost love – “We did everything we could/To slow this world down/Now my love is in the ground.” And the song is a heartbreaker precisely for its lack of overt sentimentality: “Wish this were farewell/But I’m afraid it’s goodbye.” The title cut is a comforting ode to friendship during tough times: “Day by day line by line/If you don’t have yours you got mine.” “Never Needed Anyone” realizes the scar of aging – “Now all we are/Is the living ghosts of our youth” – but also finds value in those we meet late in life – “In a world that’s so lost and so dark and so afraid it cuts you to the bone/I never needed anyone like I need you.”

“Never Needed Anyone” is more piano-driven than most on the album, but it’s followed by “Stronger,” a perfect match of Staples’ voice and Holmstrom’s guitar. Neither artist ever plays to histrionics  – it’s always balanced and perfect. The album wraps with a recall to the first song and one final look inward: “I’ve got one more chain to break/One more day to wake/One more step to take/One more change to make.” Even after eight decades, Staples isn’t ready to rest. Not just yet.

We Get By was produced by Ben Harper, who wrote all songs (Jason Mozersky co-wrote the music on “Anytime”). The album was recorded (at Henson Studio) and mixed (at Royal Triton Studio) by Ethan Allen. Staples’ longtime touring band provided the music: Rick Holmstrom (guitar), Jeff Turmes (bass), Stephen Hodges (drums) and Donny Gerard (vocals), along with C.C. White and Laura Mace (backing vocals).


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