Ry Cooder is a legend for a reason. Across a multi-decade career as one of the great guitarist survivors of American music, he has seamlessly slipped across roles as an instrumentalist, a songwriter, a composer, and a record producer. He has received the AMA Lifetime Achievement Award as an Instrumentalist, but he’s also been at the heart of the rediscovery, in anglophone America, of the power and virtuosity of Cuban music, through the Buena Vista Social Club project.
But more recently, he’s been releasing a new record of his own, named The Prodigal Son. This is his first record in about six years, and in the interval, Cooder seems to have left behind the sharp political edge that has driven his music, particularly over the last decade. Starting with his 2007 record My Name is Buddy, and continuing on to his next few records like 2008’s I, Flathead, 2011’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, and finally, 2012’s obviously named Election Special, Cooder kept his politics at the forefront of his music, as only a child of the sixties can.
In The Prodigal Son, although it isn’t completely absent, this political narrative takes a backseat, giving way to a more reflective, existential set of songs touched by religious language and motifs. At first look, it may seem unlikely for a self-proclaimed non-believer in his 70s to create a record that has its fair share of gospel music; but like almost every student of the blues, Cooder has always found inspiration in the American tradition of spirituals and religious music. When you look back at Cooder’s career, you start to think that maybe, this was coming all along – from covers of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night”, to takes on Joseph Spence’s “Great Dream of Heaven” and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Jesus on the Main Line”, spirituality has been one of the bass notes of his career; and on The Prodigal Son, biblical language gets to sit in the front seat for a while.
The record is co-produced with his son Joachim Cooder, who takes care of the drums and percussion. Ry, on the other hand, handles the guitars, bass, banjo, mandolin, and keyboards, on an album that is composed of eight covers and three beautiful Cooder originals. The covers include Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right”, Carter Stanley’s “Harbor of Love”, the Pilgrim Travelers’ “Straight Street”, Alfred Reed’s “You Must Unload”, William Dawson’s “In His Care”, the traditional gospel song “I’ll Be Rested When the Roll Is Called,” and the album’s title song. As for the album’s original compositions, they include “Shrinking Man,” which focuses on anti-globalization, “Gentrification,” which has a tinge of humorous protest, and a subtle call to arms in “Jesus and Woody”; tying together the journey of head and heart and soul that’s woven throughout the record by imagining an encounter between Jesus Christ and the legendary Woodie Guthrie.
The first impression the album gives you, once you’ve heard all the tracks from start to end, is that Cooder has delved a little deeper in the six-year break and managed to fish out a subdued, gentler version of himself. And this is reflected in his tracks, which are more on the softer side than the tough music that he gave us in his previous records. The soul of his music hasn’t changed much, though. It’s still the same expression, aware of what’s going on in the world around us. Only this time, Cooder uses a gentler voice to deliver his message, reaching inwards as well as outwards, with the kind of authority that only comes from speaking the truth out loud for decade after decade. It’s a late-career classic.
Ry Cooder (Thursday) – SOLD OUT! plays the Great American Music Hall with Joachim Cooder // Thursday Jul 19, 2018 // Doors @ 7:00pm / Show @ 8:00pm