Ry Cooder has had a long, distinguished career as a guitar player. He played with Captain Beefheart, Taj Mahal, and Randy Newman. He recorded with the Rolling Stones [the slide on Sticky Fingers’ Sister Morphine is his]. In the 1970s, he was content to record other peoples’ songs. He recorded music from the likes of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie Johnson, and other songs that are in the public domain. In the 1980s he began to compose music for movies [Paris, Texas, The Long Riders, Alamo Bay, and many others]. In the 1990s he’d moved on from film music to work with musicians from other countries [Ali Farka Toure, Vishna Mohann Bhatt, and the Buena Vista Social Club]. He also worked with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner on two albums – John Hiatt’s Bring the Family and the only album they recorded under a group name – Little Village. In 2005, he started to write and record his own material. In a trilogy of albums about California [Chavez Ravine, My Name is Buddy, I, Flathead] he told stories of the Mexican neighborhood that used to be where Dodger Stadium is now, stories of the adventures of a cat named Buddy and his friends during the times of anti-Communist and anti-labor feeling, and stories of a guy who drag-raced cars on salt flats.
All of this previous work has given Ry Cooder the label of a pre-eminent musicologist. He’s well-versed in blues, Tex-Mex, rock, folk, gospel, soul, and old-timey string music. After his California trilogy he turned his musical concerns to contemporary events. On 2011’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, Ry Cooder discovered his inner Pete Seeger and became a latter-day populist. He railed against Wall Street bankers [No Banker Left Behind], George W. Bush [Christmas Time This Year], Republicans in general [I Want My Crown, If There is a God], and rich people [Dirty Chateau]. He wished Jesse James would return from the dead and open a can of whoop-ass on Wall Street [El Corrido Jesse James], addressed the plight of Mexicans crossing into Arizona [Quick Sand], and he imagined a world where John Lee Hooker was president. This year he continues in that vein, and this being an election year, Ry Cooder sharpens his focus with Election Special.
One thing Ry Cooder makes very clear on Election Special – he doesn’t like Republicans. The opening song, Mutt Romney’s Blues, is told from the point of view of the unfortunate Seamus, the family dog who used to travel with the Romney family while trapped in a dog carrier strapped to the roof of their car. On one particular trip, Seamus literally got the crap scared out of him, and when the Romneys reached their vacation destination, Seamus ran away, never to be seen again [poor doggie]. In Ry Cooder’s world, Republicans are depicted as “evil” [he uses that word to describe the Koch brothers on Brother Is Gone]. They will take away your voting and reproductive rights [Take Your Hands Off It], re-introduce Jim Crow laws if they defeat Barack Obama at the ballot box [Cold Cold Feeling, Brother Is Gone], screw the “99 percent” [The 90 And The 9], bring back state’s rights, bring back Willie Horton and blame everything on Mexico [Going to Tampa]. There’s a song protesting the existence Guantánamo, and another about Wall Street that would have fit right in on Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down [The Wall Street Part of Town]. This album is a lot like Neil Young’s indictment of George W. Bush, Living With War.
As always, Ry Cooder’s playing is top-notch. He’s pared the instruments down to guitar, mandolin and bass, with son Joachim playing the drums and other percussion. There’s more mandolin playing than I’ve heard from him in a long time. His guitar playing is still the envy of many. His “singing” [and I use that term loosely] is an acquired taste, but I don’t buy Ry Cooder albums for his singing. I buy them for the musicianship. If you’re a Republican who is easily offended, this is not the album for you. To those folks, Ry Cooder will come across as a crotchety old-blowhard know-it-all. If you’re a Democrat, you are the choir to whom he preaches.
Bob Dylan once said of his contemporary Phil Ochs “You're not a folk singer, you're a journalist.” With Election Special, Dylan might say the same about Ry Cooder.