Friday, February 14, 2014

Song #495 of 9999 - You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples

Song #495 of 9999

Title: You Are Not Alone
Artist: Mavis Staples
Year: 2010
Album: You Are Not Alone

I'll be home this evening. And not just because Valentine's Day is a stupid made up holiday. I don't have a sweetheart to take to the movies or out to a fancy dinner or to a monster truck rally. It's just the current way of my life. And since you're reading this blog, it may also be the way of your life. And that's okay. I'm here for you. And so is Mavis Staples. You Are Not Alone. *sniff*

Something special happened when Wilco's Jeff Tweedy decided to team up with then 71-year-old Staples, a longtime, er....staple of the gospel music scene. Tweedy and Staples both hail from Chicago, where baby daughter Mavis got her start with sisters Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne as members of The Staple Singers way back in 1948, nearly twenty years before Tweedy was born. And while most of the Tweedy-produced You Are Not Alone is pretty standard gospel, the title track (penned by Tweedy) is a beautiful synergy of alt-country and gospel that highlights the common ground of the two styles.

Despite being pitched in the key of F Major, the song establishes a solemn tone immediately by beginning the verse on the submediant (vi), D minor. In fact, there is a strong tendency toward minor chords throughout the song but these periods of minor key activity are invariably met with the comforting and familiar sounds of the major plagal cadence (IV-I): 

Verse: vi  /   /   iii  |  vi   /   /   /   |  I  /   /   IV  |   I  /   /   /   |
           vi  /   /   /    |  vi   /   /   /    |  ii  /   /    /   |   I  /   /   IV  |   I  /   /   /   |

Notice the extra-long phrase in the second half of the verse (on the vi chord). And that extra space is filled with...nothing. Space. It's one of the subtle touches a composer like Tweedy brings to a genre that can be somewhat predictable. Another of these moments occurs during the chorus in the form of a lyric most likely never before heard in gospel ("open up this is a raid") and in the setting of that lyric. Where the verse is left deliberately open and spacious, the chorus is intentionally cluttered, with this specific line being shoehorned into a space where no line is necessary. Let me show you what I mean: 

You may say "ew, it sounds weird" and sure, it does in retrospect. It is certainly a lesser chorus without the line but it still works without it. And that's what makes it so brilliant. Not only is its placement perfect, but it's that particular line, which is so unusual in this context and also a great metaphor. Without it, the lyric is rather plain and the chorus's effectiveness significantly diminished. Whether through intuition or hard work, this is the kind of moment that exemplifies Tweedy's mastery of the craft and turns this song into a highlight of 2010.

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