The title of Mavis Staples' fourth studio album for the Anti- label could apply to any given point in the singer's career, but in early 2016 it seemed especially apt. Livin' on a High Note was released the week her version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" won a Grammy -- only her second -- in the category of Best American Roots Performance, and preceded the HBO premiere of the documentary Mavis! by a couple weeks. Staples was in the public consciousness as much as ever and was continuing to move in new directions. While the 2015 EP, Your Good Fortune, was made strictly with Son Little, and the preceding albums saw her work closely with Jeff Tweedy, this one was produced by M. Ward, another seasoned and sympathetic musician previously outside the Staples sphere. Material was sought from a wide-ranging roster of songwriters -- such as Valerie June, Ben Harper, Neko Case, and Merrill Garbus -- some of whom had to do a bit of homework prior to writing. Staples and her backing band, including backing vocalists Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randle, recorded with Ward, who made some lyrical and musical adjustments and otherwise kept the process as simple as possible. Inspired by Pharrell Williams' "Happy," Staples requested joyous material from her collaborators and got it, though it's all more true to her and her family group's past than to '60s pop-soul Motown, both in sound and in lyrical content. Compared to You Are Not Alone and One True Vine, the quality of the material is more variable. Some of it is memorable only for Staples' stamp, but there are several standouts, like Benjamin Booker's welcoming opener "Take Us Back" and Nick Cave's consoling "Jesus Lay Down Beside Me." (Imagine Staples being handed a copy of Junkyard.) Ward himself co-wrote two of the more compelling songs. "Dedicated," a soft and contented love song, co-written by Justin Vernon, regards an enduring romance, while the closing number -- the barest song on the album -- incorporates words from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Drum Major Instinct" sermon. Staples' heart and soul are in it from front to back, and when the songs aren't up to her standard, hope, love, and positivity still beam through.
AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman