For a short while, it looked as if the great guitarist and songwriter Ry Cooder would become better known for his collaborative efforts and soundtrack works than for his long career as a solo artist. There was his support, both musical and promotional, for the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club, and there were excellent duo works with Ali Farka Touré and Manuel Galbán.
Then, in 2005, came Chávez Ravine, a project that seemed like so much more than a mere album – as much a work of social and political commentary as a collection of songs. It was a remarkable achievement, comfortably one of the best albums of the last decade. It revitalised Cooder – eventually becoming part of a broader ‘California’ trilogy that continued with the whimsical tales of an anthropomorphic cat on My Name Is Buddy and the study of cars, girls and rock and roll on I, Flathead – an album that came packaged with a hardback book.
Now on his fifth album in a six year period (including the recent collaboration with The Chieftains), Cooder clearly has no intention of abandoning his current prolific streak. Neither has he abandoned the gleeful eclecticism that characterised the California trilogy. There are moments where the border sounds of Chavez Ravine are magically reprised (albeit with a smaller ensemble), hints of Mariachi and even a light reggae lilt to Humpty Dumpty World. There are also moments when Cooder revisits the bluesy sound of his earliest albums, with rootsy singalongs such as No Banker Left Behind or the anti-war Christmas Time This Year. Lord Tell Me Why is a subtle update on similar musical impulses that informed Alimony on his first album. There is a danger that this might occasionally veer into affectionate parody (particularly on John Lee Hooker For President, on which Cooder even impersonates the legendary bluesman), but there is a conceptual reason behind this.
Cooder is undoubtedly angered by the current political and economic climate and his recent interviews have adopted an accusatory tone, exhibiting strong anti-Republican and anti-banker sentiments. Yet the predominant characteristic of this fine album is not anger but irony. Cooder’s assumption of a John Lee Hooker mask is a clever smokescreen – his real purpose is to encourage American citizens to look beyond the Republican-Democrat political hegemony. For the most part, Pull Up Some Dust… is highly satisfying satire (although also often sensitive and affecting), combining Cooder’s transparent love for a wide range of roots music with his engagement with politics. He has presented this album as a manual for ‘citizens under siege’. Cooder’s genius here, as on the Californian trilogy, is to reach toward historical sources and depression-era musical language that now seem painfully resonant today.
The most common criticism levelled against Cooder’s work as a singer-songwriter is that his singing voice simply does not match the standard of his guitar playing. This is true up to a point – but he has always found settings in which his limited vocal style works remarkably well. Most of these songs do not require any force or acrobatics in order to speak clearly and powerfully. When Cooder veers away from politics to a more personal mode on Simple Tools, the melody and the accompaniment are as sweet and as simple as the song’s title and theme demand. Cooder even sounds great when he is operating completely alone – Baby Joined The Army is one of the highlights here.
The closing No Hard Feelings is wonderfully bittersweet, beginning with a sly Woody Guthrie reference (“this land should have been our land”) and continuing through a wide range of searing attacks on the wealthy and powerful elites, moving from the general to individual, specific stories. It also features some delicate, supremely unshowy guitar playing. It’s one of the best things he has written in a long career.
Although Pull Up Some Dust… delves deep into both North and South American musical history and moves rapidly from style to style, there is scant scope for quibbling over Cooder’s honesty or authenticity. These are musical styles in which he has invested huge amounts of time, personal passion and study – he knows these idioms closely and he has earned the right to bend them to his political and satirical purpose.