Gospel legend and civil rights icon Mavis Staples is still turning heads with her stunning new album of spirituals, One True Vine. Rolling Stone described it as “gorgeous.” The Washington Post called the project “pure faith in a refreshing artistic package,” and the Chicago Tribune concluded it reaffirmed Staples’ place “as one of the great voices of the last half-century.”
Staples first gained fame with her family band The Staple Singers, who traveled with Martin Luther King Jr. and became the sound of the civil rights movement. She launched a diverse solo career, collaborating with artists such as Prince, Bob Dylan, and others in multiple genres. Recently, she returned to her roots. So what has so beguiled the press into crowing over these gospel tidings?
From the first notes of One True Vine, Staples’ voice plunges the listener into a rich earth that envelops and swallows one whole. Credit also the brilliant production of Jeff Tweedy, better known as the front man for alternative-rock band Wilco. Tweedy captures the lower regions of Staples’ vocal range, mining veins of texture and nuance. This collaboration is Staples’ second with Tweedy. The first one, the jubilant You Are Not Alone,won a Grammy in 2010. One True Vine, though, is an abrupt change in direction. It’s not the upbeat, high-energy side of gospel but the slow-burning, brooding side.
The opening track, “Holy Ghost,” is a lush, intimate song. Staples sings with delicious pathos about the invisible reality of her faith: “Some Holy Ghost keeps me hanging on / I feel the hands but I don’t see anyone / it’s there and gone.” Here, as elsewhere, Tweedy adds juicy bits of flavor and ambiance while keeping Staples’ voice center stage where it should be. The result is a surprisingly filling meal, a banquet created from deceptively simple ingredients. In that way, it’s reminiscent of what the “Holy Ghost” does in our lives; it changes ordinary into extraordinary and “turns my water into wine.”
A strange and lonely electric guitar opens the Tweedy-written “Every Step Of The Way,” expressing the isolation and uncertainty sometimes encountered on life’s pilgrimage. When the drums and bass kick into a powerful funk, they decisively underscore the conviction with which Staples declares, “Every step of the way / I found grace / if I lead or follow / change my pace.”
Another highlight is the moving and grooving “Far Celestial Shore,” in which Staples imagines “way beyond the surly barns of earth and hay and war, is a far celestial shore.” The background singers (who include Mavis’ sister Yvonne Staples) summon the sense of an angelic choir.
Though he does not call himself a Christian, Tweedy, who composed three of the albums songs, shows an intuitive understanding of spiritual longing. But his strengths can also be his weakness. His idiosyncratic aesthetic sometimes seems to indulge in “weird for weird’s sake.” The whirling organ and clustering horns of “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” sound like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a sound more suited to the 1960s than a new-millennium gospel album. That being said, One True Vine is a serious and original contribution to gospel music, one to consider giving to those “music snob” friends who look down their noses at Christian music. They will likely respect and appreciate this project, which has a serious sound all its own while unabashedly and irresistibly presenting gospel themes.