Listeners to Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone, the latest album from the Chicago gospel legend who achieved crossover success in the early ’70s with The Staple Singers, might at first think they’d slipped an old record into the stereo by mistake. You Are Not Alone opens with “Don’t Knock,” a track written by Staples’ late father, Pops. It’s interpreted by Staples, some fine gospel-harmony backing vocals, and a touring band that includes the fine blues guitarist Rick Holmstrom—whom Staples has taken to calling “Pops Jr.”—as if trying to erase the years between 2010 and 1971. But You Are Not Alone is ultimately timeless rather than retro. Produced with respectful unfussiness by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who penned two fine songs, including the standout title track, the album reveals Staples in full possession of interpretive skills that have only deepened with the years.
That’s true whether she’s taking on gospel material or secular numbers. Staples makes both the traditional hymn “In Christ There Is No East Or West” and Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone” sound like different variations on the same call for universal tolerance. Staples specializes in uplift, which only makes Randy Newman’s “Losing You” that much more heartbreaking. She makes the line “I guess most of my dreams have come true” ring with disappointment, sure in the knowledge that no amount of earthly pleasure can make up for an impoverished spirit. It’s regretful testimony delivered in a whisper, between spiritual raptures delivered with stormy assurance. It’s the full Staples experience, in other words, and as powerful as ever.