[10 October 2011]
Ry Cooder is an oft overlooked national treasure and the secret backbone of the roots/Americana revival. His latest release is a timely soundtrack for the next Great Depression. Thank goodness that legendary American artists still have the courage to challenge and interpret our national climate. A host of great American songwriters have given us substantial statements over the last few years: Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels, Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What, and even Bob Dylan’s Modern Times have mused over the state of the American soul. But while these albums steer toward the metaphysical, Ry Cooder’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is an attempt at the existential, providing an everyman’s view of struggle during economic downturn, class disparity, injustice, and abuse of power. His is a direct voice of protest, both musically and lyrically, that will not be mistaken for being impressionistic.
Musically, this release is a no-frills production with an uncluttered soundspace. Lyrically, it is thoughtful and prophetic with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek satire. His eclectic American and Mexican sounds work within the forms with which he is most comfortable. And in the process, the listener garners respect for Ry Cooder being the kind of musical purist that he is. He plays most of the instruments (aided by his son Joachim on drums) on tracks like “No Banker Left Behind”, “Quicksand”, and “Humpty Dumpty World”. Jaunty folk and blues take main-stage and surround surprises like the Van Morrison vibe of “Dirty Chateau” and the emotive snare cracks of “Lord Tell Me Why” that call to mind recent Tom Waits. He is at his most satirical when juxtaposing happy music with grave subjects, like the death of American soldiers in “Christmas Time This Year”, which is a particularly biting critique of the George Bush era. The satire becomes more humorous in “Lord Tell Me Why”, as Cooder begins to wonder, “why a white man ain’t worth nothing in this world no more.” And “John Lee Hooker For President” imagines a world where, “Every man and woman gets one scotch, one bourbon, and one beer, three times a day if they stay cool.” This is good stuff. The lamenting last track “No Hard Feelings” calls to mind the Woody Guthrie tradition that he is invoking throughout Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down. It is a track that concludes with the inevitability of the situation and resigns itself to a hard road: “No hard feelings, no offense taken / You’re just a murmur in the whispering sands of time / No bad karma no curses on ya/ You go your way I’ll go mine”.
Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down may not be a seamless narrative, but the themes are clear. Ry Cooder plays the part of the prophet flawlessly, reminding us of our ability to screw things up by refusing to love our neighbors. In Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, those neighbors include immigrants, homeowners, and soldiers. Ry Cooder is demanding justice for the damage done: “Rabble rousing politicians on the TV screen / Sowing the seeds of hate and fear / I’ve heard it said you sow and you shall reap / Don’t come crying to me when you fall”, he croons in “Humpty Dumpty World”.
Unfortunately, we may not live in a world where an album like this can make the kind of impact that it should. An artist who is still willing to make direct statements about social conditions is in the minority within today’s ethos. What we have in Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down are cohesive themes that are in danger of being crowded out by the power of the talking heads to reduce meaningful social discourse to noise. Our cultural zeitgeist is entirely too cynical to feel the power of Cooder’s statements here. And that is a shame. The influence of the electronic age means that this album will probably get lost in the shuffle, in the midst of an environment that most needs to remember its connection to the American story that Ry Cooder evokes and embodies. Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down could have tremendous cathartic power for this who are aware of history and its knack for repeating itself. For those who are willing, this is a good place to start an education.