Mavis Staples has been making music now for over seventy years. A groundbreaker and game changer for gospel and soul music, she’s shared stages with Martin Luther King and had her voice feature prominently in the struggle for civil rights. Livin’ on a High Note proves that she still retains every ounce of technical ability and charisma that she honed as a young woman.
Her voice is as soulful as ever, swinging from a gravelly baritone to a smooth upper register without breaking a sweat. For those who would doubt her ability after all these years, look no further than the swooping vocal harmonies of Action, the acrobatic choruses of High Note, or even the husky growls of Don’t Cry. Staples manages to add something to the music that’s both poignant and uplifting, aided perfectly by bright bursts of trumpet fanfare or sassy saxophone solos. The album’s collaborators also make for an interesting list, crossing genres and generations: Ben Harper’s trademark blues feature prominently on Love and Trust, while one of the record’s most inspiring moments, Jesus Laid Down Beside Me, was penned by none other than Nick Cave. It’s an impressive mix of musicians and the album benefits from it greatly, feeling emotionally and musically nuanced.
Most of all, the prevailing spirit of the album is one of utmost joy. Staples has stated that she wanted to catch a “celebratory” spirit in the music, telling her producers that “I wanted songs that…would make people smile”. Little wonder, then, that the finished product is almost palpably bursting with triumph. The reigning queen of gospel is still sitting very firmly on her throne.