The Prodigal Son reflects the journeyman-like persona Cooder has always cultivated.
Virtuoso guitarist Ry Cooder, now 71, first started appearing on record a half century ago, sitting in with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, Taj Mahal and Neil Young (and don’t forget those Monkees). He became a legend for his slide playing, as well as his searching soundtrack for two documentaries by Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas in 1985 and Buena Vista Social Club in 1997.
With some notable exceptions, however, his own solo work hasn’t always gotten the attention it deserves. But The Prodigal Son, his aptly named new release and his first in six years, is out to change minds, with a taut, confident sound and the kind of exploratory approach to American musical forms that few musicians still living can do with the effortless flair that Cooder can.
Backed by a band anchored by Joachim, versatile drummer, co-producer and son, Cooder assembles a tracklist that combines originals with a few well-chosen covers, beginning with a touching version of “Straight Street” by the Pilgrim Travelers that sets the largely redemptive tone of the album.
Elsewhere, we find an inspired take on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” with rousing backing vocals and mean guitar playing from Cooder himself, as well as another Johnson song, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” with a particularly haunting vocal turn and spare arrangement.
On occasion, such as on “You Must Unload,” an Alfred Reed cover, the arrangement feels a bit plodding. And as tasteful as the cover of the Stanley Brothers’ “Harbor of Love” is, it soars largely due to the lyrics, though Cooder’s delivery is more than admirable and, overall, aging has made him a better vocalist than ever.
But it’s Cooder’s originals that make this album such a welcome release, the swaggering “Shrinking Man,” the delicate, imagined dialogue of “Jesus and Woody”—“Well I’ve been the Savior now for such a long time/ And I’ve seen it all before/ You good people better get together/ Or you ain’t got a chance anymore”—and “Gentrification,” a light satire and one of the most musically interesting tracks, with a joyous, bouncing bass, whistles and bells, varied percussion and Nigerian-inspired guitar.
Other standouts include Cooder’s arrangement of the traditional title track, which he and his band perform with gusto, giving it a loose, country blues feel, and the closer “In His Care,” a William Dawson tune that they turn into a Tom Waits-like barnburner. As with so many songs on the album, the treat here is the interplay between Ry’s guitar and Joachim’s drumming and percussion—beyond their father-son relationship, they have a genuine chemistry as musicians that seem to spark the best out of the elder of the two.
The Prodigal Son reflects the journeyman-like persona Cooder has always cultivated, digging into America’s past in order to resurrect its spirits for present respite, inspiration and salvation. In stark opposition to his last solo album, this album is not as explicitly political, and yet manages to feel all the more political as a result—beneath the surface, it is an album of parables, psalms and sermons, a paean to rhythm for a country in need of reminding.