Ry Cooder - Election Special
Ryland’s points a righteous finger at the “deacons in the High Church of the Next Dollar”...
In a recording career that stretches back more than four decades, Ry Cooder has never before made an album as immediate as Election Special. And yet, in numerous ways, this politically charged song cycle is right in the sweet spot of the LA-based master guitarist, musical archeologist, late-blooming songwriter and lifelong iconoclast. Following an 18 year hiatus from solo projects, during which time he focused on film music, the Buena Vista Social Club and one-off collaborations, Cooder reemerged as inspired as ever with his “Southern California trilogy”: 2005’s Chavez Ravine, 2007’s My Name Is Buddy and 2008’s I, Flathead.
In their scholarly but humour-laced examinations of various disenfranchised individuals and communities delivered via arcane musical modes, and embedded with implicit sociopolitical messages, these LPs foreshadowed an impulse that came front and center on last year’s Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down and kicks into high gear with this new record. Cranked out in a series of unrehearsed, live, single-take performances in the living room of engineer Martin Pradler’s house in the Valley, Election Special is an impassioned screed against the dumbing down of America. But this is an uncommonly persuasive screed, because it’s set up not as polemic but rather as a series of vignettes, its harsh judgments lurking within sharply drawn narratives in which not a word is wasted. Cooder avoids preaching to the converted by opting not to preach at all – not in any conventional way, at least. Instead, he creates and inhabits three-dimensional characters whose beliefs and opinions span the political spectrum of America in 2012.
Set for release a week before the Republican Convention, Election Special comes out of the blocks with a kick and a snarl. Accompanying himself on a prewar Regal Domino guitar, which rattles when it’s played, with son Joachim clattering away on his drum kit, Cooder gets right in character, croaking anxiously, “Boss Mitt Romney went for a ride/Pulled up on the highway side/Tied me down up on the roof/Boss I hollered woof woof woof”. Based on a story that hit earlier this year revealing that the Republican candidate had once taken a family trip with his dog lashed to the roof of the car, “Mutt Romney Blues” is the musical equivalent of a political cartoon, a barbed but light-hearted way to get into some extremely heavy subject matter.
If the brilliantly conceived and executed “Brother Is Gone”, which follows, has an antecedent, it lies in the Randy Newman songbook somewhere between Sail Away and Good Ole’ Boys, character-driven song cycles that employ irony and empathy in equal measure. Here, Cooder puts himself in character as oil tycoon Charles Koch, who, with his brother David, has poured tens of millions into poisoning the minds of the citizenry in an obsessive effort to run Obama out of office on a rail. In this fable, Cooder relocates Robert Johnson’s crossroads to Wichita, where young Charlie and Davy eagerly make a deal with Satan. “You will be exalted in the evil works of men/High power rollin’ over land and sea”, Evil Incarnate promises. “But some dark night I’ll be coming ’round again/And take one of you down back to hell with me”. The song follows the brothers as they proceed to lay waste to the land and populace while fattening their wallets, but Cooder sings it in a wounded voice accompanied by the poignant plucking of his mandolin, its rueful tone representing the brothers’ legions of victims even as the point of view in the lyric remains that of Charlie. It’s a brilliant move, as Cooder, whose early albums were frequently described by reviewers as collections of Depression-era songs, comes up with a great song for this Depression.
Cooder wrote and recorded “The Wall Street Part Of Town” during the Pull Up Some Dust… sessions but decided it was “too boisterous” for that album of country- and folk-styled original songs – which tells you that Election Special, though it grew out of its immediate predecessor, is a very different animal. The ironically carefree “Guantanamo” (unintentionally, I’m sure) recalls Jackson Browne’s “Boulevard”, if only because Cooder’s cascading guitar bears certain similarities to his pal David Lindley’s riff on the earlier track. “Cold Cold Feeling”, presented in the manner of a T-Bone Walker-style slow-blues lament, puts the listener in Obama’s shoes as he paces the halls of the White House in the dead of night. “If you never been President then you don’t know how it feels”, the Commander in Chief muses in the voice of weary old bluesman, “These stray dog Republicans always snappin’ at my heels”. It’s followed by “Going To Tampa”, a sprightly old-time country tune in which a Republican conventioneer salivates with anticipation as he gets ready to “shout hallelujah in the evening” and to “get my ashes hauled”.
On “Kool-Aid”, the album’s second instant classic, Cooder employs the eerily atmospheric feel of his film work to create something unprecedented. In this noir setting, he gets inside the head of a young man who unthinkingly accepts the Bush administration’s propaganda manifesto that war is “a righteous thing”, so he dutifully heads off the other side of the world, locked and loaded, ready to take “a stand against black, brown, yellow and tan”. He returns home to find his job gone, along with his hope. “All I got is just about gone”, he laments in a defeated voice. “Kool-Aid, I drank your Kool-Aid”.
The son of liberal folkies who owned plenty of Woody Guthrie records, Cooder appropriates the vanished form of the Joe Hill-style traditional workers’ song for “The 90 And The 9”, finding it a relevant way to depict the 99 percent of today, including America’s embattled union workers. He goes from dread to defiance on the closing “Take Your Hands Off It”, brandishing his trusty old Strat like a weapon and snarling, “Get your bloody hands off the peoples of the world/And your war machine and your corporation thieves/That lets you keep your job and pays your dirty salary /Take your hands off us, you know we don’t belong to you”.
What Cooder told me about Chavez Ravine in 2005 could stand as well for his urgent and inventive new album. “It’s a goddamn good accomplishment”, he said with pride. “This gets there, as far as I’m concerned”.
It’s tricky making an overtly political album without getting dogmatic, but something about these songs and sounds pulls you in.
I have to find little storylines. I have to have something I can play and sing, in some style or some instrumental point of view – a country tune or a blues tune – updating these things that I grew up listening to, these Depression-era songs and whatnot. The way I think these songs can work is if you don’t ponder over it too hard, because the tunes wanna have a spontaneous-combustion effect. What I want to do is get a certain attitude in the voice, and I can only do that once. By take two, I’m startin’ to think about it. By take three, I’m startin’ to map it out – it’s gone. It’s spoiled, y’see? So I need to get through this fast.
When did it hit you that you wanted to make this record?
I finished Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down and just kept going, and it seemed the more I did it, the better I got at it, like anything. It’s an acting job. You put yourself into the spirit of the thing, the character of the thing, such as Obama being scared or the guy going to Tampa to get laid [laughs]. Like, who am I today? I think I wanna be Ira Louvin when I sing this. If I can do that and channel those people, it’s as though all these singers and musicians and different kinds of cats are right behind your head urging you on. It’s a useful notion. I’m 65; I’ve been listening to this shit all my life, and playing it, since I was a little tiny kid, startin’ with Woody at age five. It’s like your hand is being guided. I’m not trying to say, “Here goes Ry Cooder again”. That’s awful claustrophobic – we don’t want that. We wanna get way beyond that, off into other sounds. It’s channeling, I guess, and it’s very handy, because then you feel it.
The release is well timed. I hope people discover it.
I hope so. Although who can say anymore? We’re talking about an arcane pursuit. I mean, making records, are you kidding me? Some people would say, “Why are you doing this?” I would say that it’s the only thing I like to do. I’m finally where I’d like to be in my ability. It only took fucking forever, 60-odd years of trying to get good at this, for God’s sakes. So what else would I do, whether or not people ever hear it or buy it? When I get ’em, I give ’em away to people. I know they’re not gonna buy the damn things. But we’ll see.
Where do you stand on Obama?
We all worked hard for him and voted for him the first time, and he did put the face of change there, and he’s a great orator, and he seemed to offer the thing that people needed the most, which was hope. People felt encouraged, everybody I knew. So what’s gonna happen now? If he loses and Mutt takes over, then that’s it. With the Koch brothers running things and these right-wing think tanks and the churches behind them, you’ve got it coming from all sides. I just don’t know what kind of shot we have. But if anybody asks me, I quote Pete Seeger, who was overheard to say, “I have no hope, I could be wrong.” I put that in two of these songs, because that was startling coming from Pete, who was the most optimistic person you’d ever wanna meet – until recently. He always felt that the people would make a difference, and that justice would win. So I put my money on Pete, ’cause he knows. Put it in your pipe and smoke it.
INTERVIEW: BUD SCOPPA
Pic credit: Joachim Cooder
Rating: 9 / 10