Mavis Staples is a gospel-soul legend, but she’s also shrewd to ally herself with someone as current—and with as sharp an ear—as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy has produced her last two albums, this year’s One True Vine and 2010’s You Are Not Alone, selecting songs for her to cover and penning a few tunes for her himself.
The partnership has done as much for Staples’ relevance as working with Jack White did for Loretta Lynn, but where Van Lear Rose had a few duds, One True Vine sounds at once contemporary and true to Staples’ lengthy career and history. Tweedy’s compositions are tailor-made for Staples’ voice; the haunting “Every Step” finds her hovering just above a whisper, the song smoldering with a trancelike repetition. Album-closer “One True Vine” (a Wilco cover) is somewhat more optimistic, with Staples sounding just as drained as ever but with a glimmer of hope somehow poking through. The sparse “Jesus Wept” takes about a minute to gel—the addition of backing vocals does a lot to balance out Staples’ voice here—but captures a beautifully restrained reverence once it does.
More than as a writer, though, Tweedy’s influence on One True Vine is evident in the subtle, sparse arrangements behind this powerful singer. His production embraces the spaces that exist between the notes, allowing Staples’ voice to be the album’s focal point, not cluttering her emotional delivery with unnecessary instrumentation. Tweedy arranged several songs from the public domain for Staples, selecting and adapting songs to play to her strengths, from the rousing “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)” to the rumbling “Sow Good Seeds.”
All of One True Vine channels a weary devotion, but Staples embraces that most on the album-opening track “Holy Ghost,” a cover of a Low song that was released this March (also recorded by Jeff Tweedy). The ink was barely dry on Low’s version when Staples recorded her cover, and yet she manages to sink even more sorrow and fatigue into the song, somehow out-Lowing Low with her measured and deeply powerful delivery. Not every song on One True Vine is quite as compelling—the Funkadelic cover “Can You Get To That” is a little uneven—but Staples sings with such grace and dignity that it remains a moving listen.