It was always going to be interesting to see where Ry Cooder would head next, following his 2012 explicitly
politically-oriented album, Election
At first sight it might seem that Cooder has ‘been reborn’ in true Bob Dylan style, as he references Jesus, wrote and sings the title track, The Prodigal Son, and covers Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine.
But that interpretation would be mistaken because as Cooder himself explains, he is not religious but ‘reverential’. Part of the reverence is clearly towards the artists who wrote eight of the 11 songs on this album. But he has also said that ‘Reverence’ is a word he heard his granddaughter’s nursery school teacher use when talking about some of her classes: ‘We don’t want to teach religion, but instill reverence’ she said; and at that moment he realised that this closely described the feeling of this music.
Specifically, Cooder says that he wants to be “a conduit for the feelings and experiences of people from other times,” and he impressively achieves this on this album not just through the lyrics, but through returning again to the music of bluegrass, black gospel, folk and blues.
Ry Cooder and his son, Joachim, can also be said to have produced a political album which, because of its subtlety, is perhaps even more powerful than the previous. This is the case, firstly, because while gospel music has great melodies it also carries with it an underlying drive for social justice and, secondly, because tracks like Gentrification reference the socially downtrodden and others, like Everybody Ought to Treat A Stranger Right, hark back to a time when it felt like the right thing to do was to welcome a stranger, rather than demonise them.
The album kicks off with a cover of the Pilgrim Travellers’ Straight Street, which uses a mandolin to set the spiritual tone before Cooder reminds us ‘not to lose our way or our souls’. The track also contains “a rollicking blues chopped out on a spiky electric guitar, with a solo that comes across as a tribute to Chuck Berry” according to Uncut magazine. More religious fare is offered with Alfred Reed’s You Must Unload, which talks about the importance of leading a good life and criticizes “money-loving Christians who refuse to pay their share” and hypocrites who will “never get to heaven in [their] jewel-encrusted high-heel shoes.” More spiritual direction is offered on Cooder’s reworking of Carter Stanley’s Harbor Of Love, which references the after-life; but by far the most oustanding track on the album is his powerful interpretation of Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930s tune, Nobody’s Fault But Mine.
Cooder’s cover of this song begins with some eerily haunting synth, which was reportedly created by his son Joachim. Cooder slows the song right down before entering with a vocal that sounds like it has been dredged up from some dark corner of hell. He then introduces his legendary slide guitar, possibly his Coodercaster, a modified 60s Strat, to produce a cover version that is surely destined to become a classic in his repertoire.
The penultimate track Jesus And Woody is a warm tribute to Woody Guthrie, one of Cooder’s heroes. Here, Cooder dreams of an encounter between Jesus and the much-loved activist-folk singer, singing that “they’re starting up their engine of hate,” while Jesus beseeches "you good people better get together, or you ain't got a chance anymore."
This powerful album might easily have ended on a political note but Cooder clearly felt strongly about bookending it with a return to the theme of reverence, and so he closes with another gospel number: this time with a more rock-oriented cover of William L. Dawson’s In His Care.