The first review I wrote of Mavis Staples’s new album, You Are Not Alone, wasn’t wholly positive. The problems I see with the album are still there on the seventh or eighth listen, but they’re not bothering me as much as they did last week.
Full disclosure: I’m a Wilco fan — the kind who maintains a spreadsheet of every song heard in concert to use in making song requests for future concerts. The prospect of Jeff Tweedy producing Mavis Staples made me spin around in my chair and make a few embarrassing high-pitched noises. I’m pretty sure those high expectations are why I found parts of the album to be a disappointment — especially the title track. It took me three or four listens to figure out the specific reasons I was disappointed.
In the end, what it comes down to is a fundamental disconnect between what Mavis Staples sings and what Jeff Tweedy writes. Staples projects personal authority in her music, and in his music, one of Tweedy’s primary concerns has always been how to deal with having no personal authority. Staples sings about her faith, and Tweedy writes (and sings) about his doubt.
For me, that’s why the other Tweedy-penned track on the album (“Only The Lord Knows”) worked better than the title track. The chorus goes only the Lord knows, and he ain’t you. This is the best way to navigate the distance between their styles, because this is where Staples and Tweedy can agree: we don’t have that personal authority that comes with having the answers to the big questions, but we can have faith that somebody else does.
It’s that common ground that makes me consider this album a collaboration similar to the one between Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin with Cash’s later recordings for American. The stripped-down arrangements of country and gospel standards, as well as covers of other people’s songs, gave Cash the space to showcase his best instrument — his voice. It helped that Rubin advocated arrangements that weren’t just stripped-down, but simple, because in addition to highlighting Cash’s voice, the arrangements that seemed free of overproduction helped create a sense of nostalgia. Even if you weren’t a fan of old-school country and western, you knew that this was a lot closer to what it used to sound like, regardless of whether you approached the music from Nashville or from the land of alt-country. Cash’s American recordings invoke timelessness because of their simplicity — and a lot of the credit for that goes to Rick Rubin.
Mavis Staples certainly has a voice to showcase, but her voice isn’t always deployed as well as it could be — again, especially in the title track. Tweedy’s penchant for slow tempos, melodic lines that don’t move intervals very much but also don’t hold individual notes for very long, and what can only be called enjambment in the poetic sense doesn’t let Staples show off very much. We don’t hear a lot of her tone, because she doesn’t have time to give it to us.
Based on the rest of the album, and the covers of other songs and gospel standards, it’s pretty clear that this is Tweedy’s thumbprint, and where we see Tweedy’s thumbprint the heaviest is where the album is weakest.
That said, the best part of the album, as with Cash and Rubin, is the arrangement. The songs radiate warmth and the same kind of nostalgia-inducing late 60’s/early 70’s sound that Wilco has been playing with in their last two albums. When Staples has the space to let loose, she’s hair-raisingly wonderful.
I’d be both curious and excited to see a followup album from Staples with Tweedy producing, because I suspect both of them learned a lot from each other in this process. It’s a good album. There are a few ways it could be better, but it’s a solid first effort together, and I hope we see more.