That Ry Cooder had largely surrendered to his activist urges on his last few albums was probably inevitable. The spirits of Americana music’s most honored cage rattlers — Woody Guthrie being the most obvious — were like silent partners in the dour socio- political rampages that fueled 2011’s “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down” and especially 2012’s “Election Special.” But for an artist known for an even keel approach to music, be its though his scholarly command of roots music essentials or his topical storylines, those records came across as rants. Regardless of which side of the political fence your sentiments were loyal to, their songs sounded brutish.
“The Prodigal Son,” Cooder’s first studio album in nearly six years, is an astonishing return to form.
The most immediate attribute is how it fully embraces the roots music sounds, soul and consciousness of the guitarist’s early 1970s albums, but with more sagely command. The social awareness hasn’t been forsaken. It’s just that Cooder has woven together a series of vintage folk-blues tunes penned or popularized by Blind Willie Johnson, the Stanley Brothers and the Pilgrim Travelers with three new originals where the lines between past and present are purposely blurred.
Thanks to the sublime production of son/percussionist Joachim Cooder and the ageless guitarwork and often contemplative singing from father Ry, all of “The Prodigal Son” sounds like music from another age but with a resonance that rings loud and clear today. How else do you explain a song like Blind Alfred Reed’s “You Must Unload,” which warned of religious self-righteousness back in the 1920s? The tune’s inherent sting is obvious (“You fashion-loving Christians sure give me the blues”), but Cooder lets the song play out like a prayer with vocals that sound like a confession and guitar work that chimes like church bells.
But it’s the leadoff version of “Straight Street” that ignites Cooder’s journey of discovery on “The Prodigal Son.” Unlike the almost doo-wop flavored version introduced by the Pioneers in 1955, Cooder lets the tune’s story of salvation play out with quiet but regal soul with the return of his most acclaimed harmony vocalists, Terry Evans, Bobby King and Arnold McCuller. Evans died in January at age 80, making the tune a subtle but profoundly moving parting shot.
Cooder still loves a good groove, too. To hear him peel off lean guitar mischief with Joachim’s percussive rattling on the new “Shrinking Man” is a blast. But then you dig into the lyrics and discover the working man’s worried heart that beats under all the supposed merriment. “I don’t need much and I don’t pay no starvation wage to poor folks out on the poison ground,” Cooder sings. “You don’t rob the land when you’re just a little old shrinking man.”