Guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder has spent the majority of his 50-year career as one of the country’s most vital communal historians and champions of roots music, illuminating and reanimating everything from bolero to bluegrass. Over the past decade or so, Cooder has also emerged out of his group of Sixties and Seventies contemporaries as one of folk music’s preeminent polemicists, channeling Occupy Wall Street angst on 2011’s recession-era lament Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and, more recently, lambasting the GOP on 2012’s Election Special.
On The Prodigal Son, however, Cooder returns to his foundation as vital roots music re-furbisher, spending the majority of the album dismantling and reassembling a series of 20th-century gospel, blues, folk and bluegrass traditionals. The never-predictable results range from rousing (see Cooder’s partially rewritten title track) to revelatory (“Straight Street,” “Harbor of Love”).
And although there are no condemnation as literal as 2012’s “Mutt Romney Blues” to be found this time around, Cooder is far from apolitical. In his mere three originals, the singer-songwriter-arranger, fueled by a mix of offbeat humor and righteous crankiness, crams references to climate change, third-world sweatshops, gentrification and fascists – the latter, most pointedly, on his six-minute epic “Jesus and Woody.”
The Prodigal Son, Cooder’s first album in six years, serves both as an urgent commentary on our current dystopia and a satisfying window into the interpretive process of a musical mastermind.