With If All I Was Was Black, Mavis Staples trades on the same aspirational and inspirational style of political commentary that defined the Staple Singers in the 1960s, offering a refreshingly optimistic, if anachronistic, perspective in an era saturated with oppressively toxic rhetoric. To shape her message, Staples once again turns to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who’s produced three of Staples’s last four albums. If All I Was Was Black escalates their partnership: Tweedy not only produced the album, but wrote all 10 of its songs.
Tweedy’s typical folk-rock style blends thoroughly into Staples’s feel-good soul wheelhouse throughout. But his personality shines through on “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” an album highlight that features some obvious Tweedy tropes, including a hint of rocking-chair twang and lyrics about anxiety. Sounding nicely aged and oaky, he even contributes vocals, holding his own as he trades lines with Staples, whose iconic husky contralto is as elemental as ever.
Save a few welcome bursts of spiky guitar, Tweedy reins in his idiosyncrasies in service of Staples’s by now deeply ingrained stylistic preferences. But some of his songwriting and production choices are more authentic than others: the title track’s combination of soulful sway and chunky guitar riffs blatantly but favorably recalls Neil Young’s “Walk On”; “Build a Bridge” boasts a feathery sing-along falsetto hook that could have been plucked from a lost ’70s soul classic; the stripped-down “Peaceful Dream” is a satisfying throwback to the Staple Singers’s early, heavily gospel-inflected style.
It’s when Tweedy attempts to get into a funkier, less melodically reliant mode that his approach feels less adequate. Owing to some thin drumming and intimate arrangements that deemphasize band dynamics, “Who Told You That” and “No Time For Crying” never manage to dig deep enough grooves to become anything more than grindingly repetitive, the latter’s clavinet embellishments coming across as a pale imitation of a ’70s R&B cliché.
However, nothing on If All I Was Was Black appears as out of date as Staples’s repeated pleas for harmony and understanding across political and cultural divides. Most of these lyrics are non-specific enough to apply in just about any fraught situation, but in the context of a culture practically defined by its extreme divisiveness, they seem, at first blush, a bit naïve. “Gonna build a bridge right over the mountain/I will walk right over to you,” Staples sings in “Build a Bridge.” Good luck with that, Mavis.
Of course, things were more dire during the civil rights movement, and like the music that the Staple Singers made during that era, If All I Was Was Black is hopeful—not in ignorance of political reality, but in spite of it. “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me,” Staples growls atop heavy, throbbing guitars on “Try Harder.” She spends much of the album acknowledging the nation’s ills, from police violence (“Little Bit”) and racial prejudice (“If All I Was Was Black”) to fake news (“We Go High”), but she invariably responds to them with love, not despair. “If all I was was black/Don’t you wanna know me more than that/All the love I’d give,” she implores on the title track. On the moving “We Go High,” she elevates Michelle Obama’s slogan into an actionable ethos: “When they tell their lies/Spread around rumors/I know they’re still human/And they need my love.” In 2017, it’s comforting to know there’s at least one person still out there who’s genuinely committed to civility.