Mavis Staples knows how fragile our civil liberties can be, and she wants us to know this too. On her 14th studio release, We Get By, Staples teams up with Ben Harper as producer and writer to offer an optimistic message of hope and change; but most importantly, she communicates our collective need to join forces because change is a long and winding road.
Staples is truly in her element. She’s spent the majority of her seven decade long career belting out a musical history on the struggles that come with racism. It’s easy to be cynical about positive change in a post-Obama world where every new day results in another blip of turmoil. Staples encourages us to be skeptical but also asks us to work together, rather than against, to extinguish racial inequality.
Ben Harper has done a wonderful job of letting Staples shine by largely staying out of the way and playing to Staples’ strengths. Instead, he’s compiled a collection of musicians that elevate her throaty vocals with straight-forward rhythm and blues electric guitar, and hand clapping backbeats reminiscent of soulful, gospel church hymns.
Album opener Change bolts out of the gate in exactly this way, sustaining the seductive groove through subsequent tracks Anytime, We Get By, and Brothers and Sisters until it all stops for the fifth track Heavy On My Mind. Staples is quieter here, backed with the dim glow of an electric guitar. The track embodies the low moments of a journey for change that lasts a lifetime – even the strongest and optimistic voices falter.
The back half of the album continues to seduce listeners with a flourish of history. Staples leaves us with a hug of positivity in Hard To Leave, saying: “We’ve come a long, long way.” When the fight is constant, never forget how far we’ve come and the progress that’s been made. In album closer One More Change, Staples reminds us that she hasn’t given up just yet. “Some things take a lifetime, some things can’t wait,” she says.
We Get By is another notch on her belt; an archive of how long positive transformation in society can take. It’s also a lesson for the rest of us: good things take time, just don’t give up.