Even allowing for occasional brushes with fame — playing with Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s, making the very first digitally recorded pop album (1979’s Bop Till You Drop), producing the worldwide smash Buena Vista Social Club — Ry Cooder has steadfastly remained below the radar over five decades. Occasionally though, he resurfaces with his trademark blend of Americana: plenty of space in the irresistible groove; tasty instrumental interplay; rich harmony vocals carrying an idiosyncratic, pungent lyrical message.
Cooder’s first album in six years, The Prodigal Son, is a welcome return to basics. With the exotic decorations and oddball concepts of recent albums stripped away, Cooder plays almost all the instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and keyboard); his son Joachim co-produces and mans the drums. The genre focus is narrowed too, zooming in on vernacular gospel by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Alfred Reed, Carter Stanley and William Dawson. As Cooder told MOJO magazine,
“Gospel is the best music to sing. When you sing it and play it, I always felt you go to some other place physically and emotionally … Maybe age has got something to do with that. You live through certain experiences, you keep looking for something, and maybe you’ll find it. I think I have.”