In his review of Rejoice and Shout, the 2010 gospel music documentary by Don McGlynn, Stephen Holden of The New York Times writes, "At some point while watching the film, you may feel that music is God." Directly above that paragraph is a photograph of a beautiful young woman, eyes closed, rapt in song. It's Mavis Staples, taken back when her surname carried far more weight than her given one, and if gospel music ever has transcended art and come close to the divine, it's Staples — a primary voice in McGlynn's historical chorus — who should be praised.
As the youngest sibling and lead singer in the Staple Singers, the family band founded by patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples in 1948, Mavis was the archetype for another supreme being: the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The Staples took off as spiritual performers in houses of worship around their home base of Chicago, but the group's transformation into civil rights orchestrators in the late 1960s and R&B icons on early-1970s Stax Records classics "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There" had one catalyst: Mavis' voice, the rallying cry at its core.
That godly voice — a soul-stirring, skin-prickling instrument characterized by lifelong friend Bob Dylan as "the way the world is" — has been granted its own resurrection in recent years, beginning with the 2004 comeback Have a Little Faith. We'll Never Turn Back, a concept album issued in 2007, modernized gospel songs from the Civil Rights movement with the rootsy signature of producer Ry Cooder. But it's on 2010 release You Are Not Alone that Staples found her most inspired, if unexpected, champion: fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.
Stemming from a joint performance for 2008 live recording Hope at the Hideout, her latest LP puts Staples back where she belongs: front and center, backed by lean, Muscle Shoals-likened arrangements of gospel standards from her youth ("Creep Along Moses"); popular songs by contemporaries Allen Toussaint ("Last Train"), Randy Newman ("Losing You") and John Fogerty ("Wrote a Song For Everyone"); two Pops Staples originals ("Don't Knock" and "Downward Road") and two new tracks penned by Tweedy ("Only the Lord Knows" and "You Are Not Alone").
A sturdy showcase of an incomparable American talent, You Are Not Alone is most moving on that title track, Tweedy's ruminative mid-tempo strum a perfect match for Staples' deep-sourced vocals, which speak to her unassailable faith in the powers of God and of people: "I'm with you, I'm lonely too/ What's that song, can't be sung by two?"