Smooth, soulful and resonating with a message of revolution, ‘We Get By’ is Mavis Staples’ twelfth studio album, but her first collaboration with GRAMMY Award-winner Ben Harper. The Rock’n’Roll hall of famer turns 80 next month, but she’s not going to slow down any time soon; “I’m the messenger,” Staples says, “that’s my job—it has been for my whole life—and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive.”
And she’s right—in a time when civil rights across the world are still under siege, We Get By is a call to action. An album of anthems designed to inspire brotherhood, joy and hope, and prove to the world that even after nearly seventy years of performing, Mavis Staples can continue to evolve and better herself as an artist.
Track one, the aptly named Change, is rock’n’roll as it was in Staple’s youth. Across the album, starting now, there is a stripped back composition, designed to show Staple’s voice and emphasise the message in her lyrics. With a chorus of other singers echoing the question ‘what good is freedom?’, Change also takes us back to Staples’ gospel and church roots, bringing faith as a tool to unite, as response to a world in which it is used to divide.
The eponymous third track, We Get By, is an ode to the every day, and recognition of ordinary people who can do nothing but carry on, even though their place in the world is undermined. ‘No matter what happens, I’ll be there for you’ promises Staples throughout the song, not only to Harper—who also sings on the track—but to you. In an album that calls for a type of revolution in the way people are treated—not only by the world but also in how we treat ourselves, We Get By is a quiet moment of reflection and reassurance.
Brothers and Sisters is a call for justice and strength in unity, tied together with a funky guitar. Together, Staples and Harper have succeeded in creating a different type of resistance album. Reactions to the political climate are everywhere in modern music, usually laced with vitriolic anger or anxiety, but We Get By lacks either. Instead of using furious lyrics to incense the listener, Staples sings with a calm—but firm—tone that perhaps only comes from having marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King Jr and performing at JFK’s inauguration. After so many years singing and campaigning for equal rights, the repetition of ‘something’s got to give’ doesn’t ring out like a threat. Instead, it is a cool assurance, Staples speaks to her audience with the knowledge that something will give because she and all her fans have the power to make it so.
Like the tide of change, so too does We Get By rise and fall in intensity. The fifth track on the album, Heavy on My Mind reflects Staples’ inner worries and thoughts and the lingering, lasting pain from old wounds that never seem to heal. Heavy on My Mind is the track which perhaps most highlights the sheer creative synergy between Harper and Staples. Staples’ soulful and heart-rendering delivery of the lyrics, with only a single electric guitar for company, would fool anyone into believing that she was pouring out her deepest thoughts. This is a testament to Harper’s lyrics, but also evidence of Harper’s long-running respect and reverie for Staples. Together, they turned the recording studio into a confessional.
Never Needed Anyone is another track which takes on a melancholic tone. Though Staples has been notedly self-supporting —her only marriage ended in divorce after she refused to give up her career—Never Needed Anyone is not a declaration of independence. In keeping with the overarching themes of unity within the album, the song reveals that though life can be lived independently from love, it is only when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with one another, that we can find our true strength.
Stronger and Chance on Me are two love songs which harken back to Staples’ earlier music. Though she may have evolved as an artist, Staples has never done so beyond recognition and has never lost her blues and gospel roots. As the album winds down and comes to an end, Staples is no longer singing to the crowd. She’s singing to you, for you, and she’s determined to make you hear every word she says.
On the penultimate song, Hard to Leave, Staples and Harper have created a timeless track, capturing the universal ache of being separated from your loved ones. After eighty years of living, there is no doubt that Mavis Staples has felt heartbreak and love in equal measure—such is evident from her emotive delivery. But in spite of all her life experience, Hard to Leave is a song that could be about your first love or your forever partner, or a relationship that didn’t, or couldn’t work, despite how much you wanted it to. It’s a hand to hold, and a shoulder to cry on, whether the one you love is coming back or not.
But such a sorrowful song is not the way Staples wants to leave her audience. “I sing because I want to leave people feeling better than I found them,” she says, “I want them to walk away with a positive message in their hearts, feeling stronger than they felt before.”
One More Change is just the track to rouse the spirits after a sombre self-reflection. Whilst it’s not as upbeat as the fuzzed-out guitar and toe-tapping beat of Change, One More Change is an acknowledgement of the difficulty of self-improvement, and yet also re-emphasises the necessity of growing.
With our civil liberties being questioned and re-formed seemingly on a whim, We Get By is not an acceptance of injustice, as its title may suggest. It’s a guarantee that we all will get through adversity, and we will thrive. But first, we need to make—as the song title suggests—One More Change, starting with ourselves.