Review by Mark Augustine
When we engage a piece of music (or any art, for that matter) we are filtering it through what we believe the artist’s motives, inspirations, and intentions are. Whether we like it or not (or are even conscious of it) how we accept or make sense of these things is largely based on our own motives, inspirations, and intentions. Basically, how do we process, say, a Gospel record if we’re not among the converted? Are certain things only meant for certain audiences? Do artists only want certain people listening to their work? What responsibilities, if any, do we have as listeners to separate or make sense of art from its inspiration?
Mavis Staples new Gospel record, One True Vine, will certainly have a lot of people thinking about these things. Mostly because it is so damn good. It also happens to be the second collaboration between the decidedly faithful Staples and the spiritually ambiguous Jeff Tweedy, who serves as producer to Staples for a second time since 2010’s You Are Not Alone. It’s usually at least interesting when artists of different generations and genres collaborate, and sometimes it produces oddly brilliant results. Willie Nelson’s 2006 Songbird, which was produced by Ryan Adams, comes to mind. Nelson all swagger and smile and Adams all droop and despondence. Yet put them together and, somehow, it works. A Tweedy/Staples collaboration is similarly puzzling and similarly rewarding, with Tweedy seeming as the person most in need of a hug and Staples as the person most likely to give it.
So if Tweedy doesn’t bother to spiritually neuter Staple’s message, and Staples doesn’t worry about saving Tweedy’s soul, what is there left to work on? To the benefit of everyone, it is the music. The first two tracks – Holy Ghost and Every Step – are surprisingly down-tempo and introverted. This move makes the moment even more celebratory when we finally get to holler-and-stomp on track three, a cover of Funkadelic’s Get to That. This track is probably the album’s most outwardly upbeat and joyful. In fact, the album itself has a very ponderous quality, but Staples decision to reflect on and question her faith serves only to strengthen both her conviction and that of the record. By the time we get to the title track, there’s not a question of Staple’s conviction in the One True Vine.
This record serves neither as a religious achievement or a secular achievement, but simply as an achievement, and obliges as further proof of the uselessness and disingenuousness of “Christian Rock.” In terms of spiritual passion, I am personally more likely aligned with Tweedy. Yet when I hear Staples sing to me, I am moved in the way that I hope she is intending me to be moved. Like she did in 2010, when she sings
There’s no need to be afraid
Open up, this is a raid
I want to get it through to you
You’re not alone
I know that I’m not alone. What difference does it make who I think is there with me?