Sounds like … an amalgam of gospel, blues, and rock 'n' roll that recalls the Staple Singers, Bob Dylan, the Blind Boys of Alabama, T-Bone Burnett, and Johnny Cash
At a glance … We'll Never Turn Back is gospel music for those who don't typically like gospel—not to mention the boldest artistic expression in Mavis Staples' career.
"If Dr. Martin Luther can preach it, then we can sing it." That was the motto of Pops Staples and his inimitable Staple Singers, one of the most influential gospel groups in the history of music—and we're not just talking gospel. It's a line that his daughter Mavis Staples sings with harrowing conviction in "My Own Eyes," the autobiographical centerpiece of We'll Never Turn Back, her first album of new material since 2004's Have a Little Faith.
Unlike the last album, We'll Never Turn Back isn't a collection of hymns and church standards. Instead, it's a reverent homage to her late father and the cause of racial equality—a calling they heeded faithfully since the early '60s. From then on, the Staple Singers' willingness to perform at civil-rights rallies and to record message songs earned them their share of detractors in the gospel community. However, today they remain the only gospel group ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For sure, gospel this ain't, at least not by the typical definition of it. Produced by guitar great Ry Cooder (Buena Vista Social Club, Steve Vai), the disc is dusty traditional gospel as informed by the blues rather than the church—a dark yet incredibly hopeful collection of freedom songs and spirituals. The soundtrack is both ominous and menacing, commanded by a gifted band of renegades that's more empowering than obtrusive. And Staples' soulful, gravelly alto is never eclipsed in the process.
Together, they give an exceptional rock 'n' roll swagger to "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "This Little Light of Mine," two Sunday-school classics as you've never heard them before. That's only a small sampling, with every track on We'll Never Turn Back a history lesson in its own right. Each is a solemn and moving reminder that ethnic conciliation on earth, not as a civil duty but as creatures of the same God. is a preamble to the biggest unity rally yet—the one we'll celebrate in the life to come. Pops would be proud.
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