Time certainly hasn’t dampened the urgency in Mavis Staples’ voice.
Now 80, the Grammy Award-winning legend and social activist from Chicago has one clear enemy on her new album: the status quo.
She sings the word “change” 20 times. The terrific “We Get By” (Anti-Records) opens with the song “Change.” And it ends 10 tracks later with “One More Change to Make.” And along the way, she urges, “Can’t stay the same,” ”Something’s got to give” and “Grab hold of the days.”
All of the songs on this, her 12th studio album, were written by Ben Harper, and their union proves fruitful and moving. Harper has given Staples some songs that show off her vulnerable side and others that make you move, with some funk and folk and soul and blues, the guitars often shimmering. He joins in singing the dynamic, soulful title track.
The Staples-Harper collaboration dates to when he wrote the terrific “Love and Trust” for her 2016 album “Livin’ On a High Note.”
Harper, who has three Grammys, has written and produced an unrushed and quietly brooding album for Staples that puts her expressive voice at the center, with the instruments turned down. Two songs — “Never Needed Anyone” and “Heavy On My Mind” — sound like the band was just one room down the hall.
In between calls for change, Staples sings about love.
On “Chance on Me,” she is needy: “I don’t need a symphony / I just need one violin.”
On the tender, bluesy “Hard to Leave,” she’s longing: “Softly reaching over / For your touch upon my sleeve.”
Then, there’s the standout “Stronger,” an irresistible, rocking track on which Staples’ voice stretches and soars, and the guitar keeps up with her. “Don’t need a house on the hill / Don’t need my face on a dollar bill,” she sings.
Staples might not need her face on our money, but maybe that’s the least we can do to thank her.