Mavis Staples doesn't so much sing a song as baptize it in truth.
Whether on such Staple Singers classics as "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself," or solo tracks like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "God Is Not Sleeping," it's more than just her ability to tweak a phrase, or cajole a note into something extraordinary. Like the great preachers she heard while growing up in Chicago, Staples infuses each song with a soul-quaking depth fired with dignity and faith.
With such qualities as a vocalist, Staples' s sublime new CD, "We'll Never Turn Back," seems like the album the 66-year-old singer was born to make. Produced by Ry Cooder -- perhaps best known for resurrecting the once-forgotten careers of splendid Cuban musicians and uniting them as the Buena Vista Social Club in the mid-1990s -- "We'll Never Turn Back" is Staples' s first album since her 2004 comeback "Have a Little Faith."
If that CD re introduced Staples to listeners, her latest effort is a mission statement on her greatness. Hers is a voice of tremendous warmth and magnanimity, and through this album's 12 tracks, she never delivers a false note or emotion. On the opener, a sinewy reading of J.B. Lenoir's "Down in Mississippi," there's a quiet defiance in Staples' s voice, and she receives ample support from the legendary South African vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo , who also appear on "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Not Be Moved."
Several of the songs here are well-known civil rights-era anthems, yet in Staples' s caring hands, there's nothing dusty or distant about selections such as "This Little Light of Mine." On several songs, such as the spare "Jesus Is on the Main Line," Staples contributes additional lyrics, giving them even deeper poignancy.
For "I'll Be Rested," a new Cooder-Staples composition, she includes her beloved father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, on a heavenly roll call of civil-rights martyrs and gospel greats, including Malcolm X and Mahalia Jackson, respectively.
Staples has always been a singer of texture and brio, and her distinct contralto has picked up a bit of grit with age, but it gives her songs, such as "Turn Me Around," the patina of life and its hard-won lessons.
This album plays well as a companion to "Freedom Highway," which Staples recorded with her father, brother Purvis, and sister Cleotha in 1965. Released shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, it became the stirring soundtrack of a movement.
On "We'll Never Turn Back," Staples summons the same intensity and fervor, creating new battle cries for our own troubled times with songs that resonate with resilience and hope. In the turbulent wake of Hurricane Katrina, global and domestic unrest, and another unpopular war for another generation, Staples's songs breathe with the rousing determination of one still committed to fighting the good fight.
More than a half-century after her career began, she maintains the candor and resolve of a woman who understands what it means to bend, but never break.