Tomorrow marks the release of Mavis Staples’ latest album Livin’ On A High Note and the album will reportedly reference and draw from her 60+ year musical career influencing and defining gospel, soul, folk, pop, R&B, blues rock and even hip-hop — and that shouldn’t be surprising. But the most interesting and compelling aspect of Livin’ On A High Note is that Mavis recruited a number of diverse and critically applauded contemporary artists to write songs specifically for her including Neko Case, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Ben Harper, tUnE yArDstUnE yArDs, Aloe Blacc, Benjamin Booker, The Head and the Heart and M. Ward — with Ward also taking up production duties. As the legendary soul singer explained in press notes “I’ve been singing my freedom songs and I wanted to stretch out and sing some songs that were new. I told the writers I was looking for some joyful songs. I want to leave something to lift people up; I’m so busy making people cry, not from sadness, but I’m always telling a part of history that brought us down and I’m trying to bring us back up. These songwriters gave me a challenge. They gave me that feeling of, ‘Hey, I can hang! I can still do this!’ There’s a variety, and it makes me feel refreshed and brand new. Just like Benjamin Booker wrote on the opening track, ‘I got friends and I got love around me, I got people, the people who love me.’ I’m living on a high note, I’m above the clouds. I’m just so grateful. I must be the happiest old girl in the world. Yes, indeed.”
Now you might recall that I wrote about album single “High Note.” The single focuses on something that’s much easier said than done for most of us — taking the higher road despite how hurt, betrayed and disgusted you might be over a particular person or a particular situation, and doing so with grace and dignity. At the same time, the song’s narrator points out that taking the higher road requires wisdom and experience — sometimes embittering and hurtful ones to know when and how to do so. Sonically, the song pairs a loose and bluesy guitar line with Mavis’ legendary vocals in a song that radiates a comforting and soulful warmth that says “hey, I’ve been there, too.”
Recently, two more singles from the album were released — the Nick Cave penned “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me” and the tUnE yArDs penned “Action.” “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me” pairs slow-burning and bluesy guitar chords with Mavis Staples’ unmistakable vocals in what may arguably be the most gospel-leaning song on the entire album as the song’s narrator offers Jesus comfort for his suffering — with the understanding that even for the most religious their faith can seem both distant and easily questioned. “Action” is a shuffling and upbeat call and response-based song in which its narrator says that desperate times often require desperate measures — and that when you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, that you’re getting up off your ass and doing something. And much like Charles Bradley‘s “Change For The World,” “Action” points out that civilization’s current plight is untenable and unsustainable until we’ve had enough and change it. It seems like we all need to listen to the old-timers, huh?