Take a trip home with Mavis Staples
Hopefully everyone reading this likes to go home. The drive back on those familiar roads, sitting at the kitchen table for dinner, the love and comfort of family. The feeling of being of home can be obtained by watching a movie like Toy Story, eating Kraft Mac’n Cheese, or listening to the right music. Mavis Staples’ new album, If All I Was Was Black, is made up of songs that evoke the comfort, smiles, and memories of being and feeling at home.
The title-track, the second of the ten, does a particularly good job of sounding comfortable and home-like. It halts listeners in whatever they’re doing to make them tilt their heads up and mentally take a break from the now. No matter when the song is played, it’s a rewind. This is an impressive feat not every song can claim to do. “Ain’t No Doubt About It” has very similar qualities too, but it will be the listener’s preference as to which one is “better.”
The most complex song on the album only holds that title because of one moment: the guitar solo in “Who Told You That?” Frankly, it’s not even that note-heavy. Simplicity is the primer on Staples’ musical house, and the delightful package of her singing and the backup vocals is the layer of paint over it. Perhaps it’s the easiness of these songs that makes them feel like home.
“Peaceful Dream” is a beautiful tune aided by the backup singers, leading listeners to picture a small house in a rural area surrounded by more nature than neighbors, with a family singing songs like this under a starry night sky. Most of these songs, in addition to feeling like home, feel like they could be a part of the Breaking Bad soundtrack. The sound of the guitar, gently driving drum beats, and Staples’ voice all sound like people doing badass illegal activities in a place like New Mexico. It’s pretty incredible how this music can sound light and comfortable, while also fitting something so life-or-death as Breaking Bad.
The best lyrics are in “We Go High,” an outline for how to deal with problems with other people. Staples reminds that when other people “go low” — use insults, or take petty shots to try win arguments — the best approach is not to stoop, but rather rise above. “Try Harder” also has good lyrical content, but it’s one of the weaker songs on the album, down there with “Build a Bridge” (a joyful song nevertheless).
“Little Bit” is a killer intro — the sassy soul she brings makes this the perfect song for the start of morning commute. “No Time For Crying” is a song that would commence playing as soon as TV characters decide they need to buckle down and get working. “All Over Again” is the most different song of the ten (partially due to her altered voice), making it a great closer. It’s a step back from every song that happened before, an uncertainty, a question wondering if all the joys of childhood and home and the necessity of formative experiences was good enough for her to want to do it “All Over Again.”
For a set of songs that could so easily pass as “just some soul music” if played on a car ride and received by passive ears, If All I Was Was Black truly delivers. Hey, it might make for great music to drive home to.