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Ry Cooder takes no prisoners. In his latest album, Election Special, Cooder is in excellent form and is ready to rip the Republican party. You only need to take a quick glimpse at the song titled to know where Cooder’s mind was when he was writing this album: “Mutt Romney Blues”, “The Wall Street Part of Town”, “The 90 and The 9” all convey a sense of anger and bitterness without even having to press play.
“Mutt Romney Blues” kicks off the album with a biting, bluesy attack on Romney. Using some obvious analogies for anyone familiar with Romney’s past, Cooder launches his attack over a rhythm heavy track that builds vertically; with each added backing vocalist and percussion instrument, the song turns into a widescreen battle.
“Brother Is Gone” is a slower and calmer, mandolin driven song that grows into a slow-burning ballad. “Oil spills and cancer towns was our steppin’ stones/Immigration bills and foreclosed homes/States rights we proclaimed like in the good old Jim Crow days/Out highest aim was to take your vote away” is almost as unambiguous you can get when it comes to story-telling and Cooder knows exactly how to take a line like that and weave a beautiful melody behind that; one that you can hum in blissful ignorance even if you find the political overtones to be too strong.
However, if that’s the case, its probably not the best idea to get this album in the first place. Cooder proves that he can still add to his legacy with Election Special. “The Wall Street Part of Town” is a chooglin’, boogie with extra dirty and rough guitar. To the right ears, that tone is just as powerful as Cooder’s lyrics. “Guantanamo” ups the ante with it’s riff heavy verses and Cooder’s gritty yet smooth vocals proclaiming that “You can’t come back from Guantanamo”. It’s ironic how happy these tunes sound; replete with chiming mandolin and almost cheery riffage, they belie the dark lyrics within. It’s a testament to Cooder’s ability to both craft a bewitching narrative while still grounding it in a driving and catchy song.
Lyrically “Cold Cold Feeling” is probably the most biting track on the entire album, lamenting the problems that Obama faced throughout his first presidency. “Now the Supreme Court is contaminated and everything that they do is wrong” and “You never been president, people, then you don’t know how it feels/These stray dog Republicans, always snapping at my heels” are direct attacks against Republicans, with Cooder throwing his support and empathy towards President Obama.
“Kool-Aid” is the first step Cooder takes away from traditional Americana with its eerie, delayed guitar giving the song a powerful sense of forbidding. Somewhat reminiscent of the guitar tone in the intro of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, it comes as an immediate surprise at the tail-end of the album. This jolt of energy revitalizes the album, pushing it more into an experimental realm, and the music finally matches the intensity of the lyrics.
“Going To Tampa” and “The 90 and The 9” return to the traditional Americana that defines most of this album with bouncing bass lines and the melodic mandolin accompanying. While it is a bit disappointing to see Cooder abandon the aforementioned experimental sound, it really isn’t much of a problem when he does this kind of bluegrass so exceptionally well. It’s actually a nice respite from the anger of “Kool-Aid” and, perhaps, it is even more baffling.
While traditional folk and blues were the original forms of musical protest, it does sound a bit off nowadays. The music is less gnashing of teeth and, therefore, more pleasant to listen to. Challenging lyrically, yet musically traditional, Cooder has managed to bridge the gap between the protest driven blues and folk songs of the past and the modern day. Unlike many modern folk bands, he manages to capture the spirit of these traditions and keep them intact.
The album closes with “Take Your Hands Off It”, a nice encapsulation of everything Election Special is. “Hey what are you sanctimonious hands doing on my reproductive rights?/You don’t speak to god, you know it don’t belong to you” howls Cooder over the rootsy, blues-inflected tuneage. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cooder states that “I thought I should have a record that says, ‘This here record is for you during election time.’ Rather than be vague and poetic, let’s just call this what it is.” Honestly, Cooder undersells the albums; it’s essentially a time stamp of the 2012 election as seen through Cooder’s eyes. While it may come off as too left-leaning to some Cooder comes off as strong, both musically and lyrically. Age has done nothing to diminish his songwriting abilities and effectiveness in conveying a message full of purpose and urgency.