Ry Cooder: “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down”
Toward the end of Ry Cooder’s latest LP there is a song about a handyman. The song is called “Simple Tools,” and it’s about a guy who can offer utilitarian solutions to basic problems. There’s nothing flashy about this fellow; he can spot problems and he can patch them up. His work may not be glamorous or innovative, his solutions not necessarily pretty to look at, but it’s what he does—he fixes things. And it might seem, at first, like an odd inclusion on what is otherwise an album overrun with political rage and moral outcry, but of course, the fix-it man is really a stand-in for Cooder himself. This is Cooder’s most timely and urgent release in many a moon, maybe ever—a long and unflinching album about socio-economic injustice, protest music for the Occupy era. It’s an album about war, poverty, and the culprits who look the other way while these things transpire.
They are not, in other words, simple problems, yet Cooder proves adept at addressing them using the simple tools in his songwriter’ toolkit—tools like humor and empathy, imagination and allusion. He is under no delusion that he can fix the world’s problems, but his songs serve a practical and positive purpose. They direct our attention to the gravity of what’s going on, and they suggest different avenues for us to respond. These avenues include righteous indignation and deep compassion. They include getting pissed one moment, laughing out asses off the next. They are not permanent fixes, but neither are they cosmetic ones. Cooder’s simple tools, as laid out on this album, are invaluable.
The first tool out of the box is the album’s very title: Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down reads like an old soft-shoe joke from the Depression era, and it makes it puts this thing into perspective—history is cyclical, injustice a thread that runs throughout it. But you don’t need the scattered references to modernity to know that Cooder’s rage resides in the present. Truthfully, Pull Up Some Dust is the angriest set of protest music yet composed for this present generation’s crisis, and one of the most elegant and expansive; it belongs on the shelf with Elvis Costello’s National Ransom, a travelogue from a country that’s lost its way and lefts its people feeling like kilted lovers.
The album refracts the times in fourteen different ways; it’s as though Cooder is offering different perspectives because he knows that at least one of them is bound to get you riled up. Just about all of them are successful in doing that, but the standpoint might be a song called “John Lee Hooker for President,” a song about exactly what it sounds like. It’s astonishing, and not just for Cooder’s note-perfect impersonation for the bluesman as he contemplates a bid for the White House; no, it transcends any gimmickry with its white-hot political rage and its suggestion of a world less concerned with making war than playing the blues. Cooder’s Hooker isn’t reluctant to throw the Democrats out on the street, but saves more bile for the Republicans. The song is hysterical and venomous. Cooder/Hooker pledges that his administration would leave everything copastatic, and we believe him.
At times Cooder is almost merciless in his portrayal of “the enemy.” “I Want My Crown” is a scorcher, with the singer growling over an eleven-piece band and embodying greed and injustice as forms of pure evil. “Lord Tell Me Why” is a little more nuanced, but utterly amazing; it rocks to a killer, almost hip-hop groove and features a gospel choir, with Cooder’s protagonist wondering why “a white man ain’t worth nothing in this world no more.” The song is pained and uncomfortable, but it doesn’t just incur our judgment. The man singing is obviously confused and bewildered by the modern world, and likely the recipient of some injustice himself. We feel for him. I think Cooder does too, especially if the closing number, “No Hard Feelings”—a Native American’s litany of sins against the environment and his people, that ends, astoundingly in forgiveness—is to be believed.
These are songs for igniting our indignation; the prevailing notion is that injustice matters, and we shouldn’t stand for it. But the album is also about expanding our moral imagination. There are songs here that reveal how high the stakes—like “Baby Joined the Army,” a mesmerizing, slow-burning blues scorcher, nearly seven minutes of just Cooder and his guitar. It’s a father’s lament for a daughter who joined the army and got herself shot to pieces—all because she needed the money. It’s a heartbreaker, and its humanity grounds other songs, like “Christmas Time This Year”—a raging and grotesque anti-war song that again reminds us of the human cost of reckless nations, only this time it’s dressed up as an innocuous Mexican polka, a holiday sugar rush for a ruthless and cruel world.
It is easy to become angry while listening to these songs, but difficult to become dispirited; there is too much empathy, too much humor, and too much excellence. Indeed, Cooder is reaching deeper than ever into his songwriter’s toolbox and finding simple tools we haven’t heard him use lately, or ever. This means the album is almost completely devoid of his usual guitar heroics, but it’s meant to be a songwriter’s showcase, and on that level it is nearly flawless. He reveals his resourcefulness and imagination time and time again, opening the album with a war-time march that’s just mandola, drums, and Vonnegut-level satire (“No Banker Left Behind”), then following it with a weepy Tex-Mex piece that takes on the bankers from a different perspective—namely, that of outlaw Jesse James, looking down from Heaven in abject horror. His rage becomes our own.