In anybody else's hands, this new Mavis Staples album would have been a museum piece, interesting but ultimately dust-covered and remote.
Not that We'll Never Turn Back (just issued Tuesday by Anti Records) doesn't have plenty of right things to say, and certainly plenty of righteous things, in melding well-known "freedom songs" of the Civil Rights movement with like-minded newer compositions.
But Staples ends up using them as a platform to tell her own engaging story of survival, and of hope, and (perhaps most importantly) of determination to foster change still to come.
We'll Never Turn Back, as expected, speaks to the larger issues of equality, but also to Staples' own difficult upbringing in the rural Deep South of separate water fountains and separate lives — and how that helped shape her into a woman, and into an artist.
As a member of the 1960s-era Staples Singers, Mavis always drew from the deep well of spirituals and church hymns — even if it was only by feel — to push her sound into your heart. Along the way, her family group became (through tunes like "Respect Yourself," "City In The Sky," "Why Am I Treated So Bad?") one of the most important of the mainstream soul collectives to fight through music for racial justice.
Here, Staples finds the same delicate balance, coupling ageless reinterpretations (beginning with J.B. Lenoir's "Down in Mississippi") with tracks co-written by producer Ry Cooder. The result is something somehow instantly recognizable and yet completely new.
Cooder, for instance, turns the familiar "This Little Light" inside out — arranging it as a chugging blues groover. Later, in a spoken ad-lib during the traditional "99 and a Half," Staples tries to exorcise scenes familiar to Americans in the wake of the devastating hurricanes of 2005: "Broken levees, lying politicians, running through hatred, homeless babies — freedom now! Freedom now!".
She still sees a second-class America that needs to be saved. As far as Staples has come, the journey, she insists, is far from over.
In this way, We'll Never Turn Back transcends humble homage to become one of the most emotionally honest albums I've heard in years, shattering in its scope but personal in its bravery
With an intellect as piercing as the ringing steel-guitar that permeates this CD, Staples sings with both pride and pain — "I integrated a washateria," Staples remembers, with a sharp, grizzled toughness — and never, ever turns away from what must be said about those times.
With the next breath, you'll find Staples back on the stump, exhorting us all to do what's right: "Hold on; keep your eyes on the prize," she sings.
In the end, this isn't a record about recrimination, so much as bootstrap inspiration. And that's what makes it timeless.
We'll Never Turn Back examines, with simple dignity yet steadfast resolve, where Staples has been. I expected that. What I found was that it also told me a lot about where she'd still like to go.