It’s a frustrating truth that the most affecting and durable protest music of the last 50 years has also been the least specific. Rather than skewering any single injustice and offering a viable corrective path, songs as varied as “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Little Boxes,” and “Inner City Blues” all succeed on a fuzzily subjective level; they focus on socio-political climates more overtly than ideologies, providing a snapshot of how certain issues appear to certain people without getting explicit about either. Perhaps this is why musicians who’ve tried to spew tonal bile directly at the White House or Wall Street over the last decade haven’t been able to use, say, Bob Dylan’s psychological ballads as templates, though some, like Green Day, have aspired to his eloquence or, like Neil Young, have repurposed his hits. Others, like Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, were so determined to attack the Bush administration with specificity that they churned out disastrous singing editorials a la Phil Ochs. Such is the price the artist often pays for being lucid.
With his globally acknowledged credentials, one would at least expect Ry Cooder to know that inspiring words are nearly always elastic ones; his curatorial advantage is such that he can use the n-word while covering a Leadbelly song without accusations that he’s taken his aural blackface too far. And he’s intimately aware of the diversity of musical protest, from the street fury of Chicano dance rhythms to mellifluous Brazilian sambas about police brutality. But none of this is evident on Election Special, which delivers more of the clunky op-ed rock that’s beleaguered the twilight careers of Cooder and his contemporaries, among others. “Mutt Romney Blues,” which opens the album, is particularly representative of the Huffington Post article-set-to-a-three-chord-progression aesthetic: Cooder drawls out a predictably desperate monologue from the POV of the GOP candidate’s former Irish Setter while his guitar provides a herky-jerky Delta backdrop. Sounding clumsily patched together from a few hurried rehearsals (the drums, by Cooder’s son, are particularly awkward), the unmemorable track has no value outside the context of the current presidential election. The prevalence of canine mistreatment notwithstanding, it’s a song that will barely outlast the dairy products in your fridge.
“Mutt Romney Blues” more or less announces the formula leaned on throughout the album: modest instrumentation plus sparse, gritty arrangements plus extroverted lyrics. The last is especially grating, as Cooder’s rhymes not only verbalize what we’re all thinking (in the tradition of the social poet), but what we’re all already saying. His complaints commit a morbid redundancy that might depress those weary of reminders that they’re hopelessly unemployed. Cooder’s grievances, furthermore, range from the Lehman Brothers (“They believed that evil deeds would never fail”) to Guantanamo (“You’d best keep away/What would Jesus say?”) to the incumbent’s plight (“They’re gonna re-segregate the White House!”) to the ever-elusive 99% (“This might be the last time”); it’s as though Cooder assembled political targets by channel-flipping between Anderson Cooper 360 and The Daily Show. But make no mistake, the renowned session player and producer is laying his bald feelings on the line, like them or lump them. His voice cracks while expressing reductive sympathy for President Obama and suspicions that fat cats are perverting the Bill of Rights, as though such boilerplate liberal convictions remain incendiary.
This misfiring, wannabe agitprop is further disconcerting because of Cooder’s academically shrewd handling of similar material before. His bleakest, densest, and most rewarding release to date, Chavez Ravine, formed a poetic dissertation about displaced Chicanos in Los Angeles through the 20th century; the orchestrated indignation of his last album, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, incorporated a protean Greek chorus of economic victims and beat Occupy Wall Street to the punch by several weeks. Election Special, however, trades the purposefully pixelated disillusionment of those achievements for a smooth, topical focus that Cooder simply can’t pull off without sounding like a blowhard who’s been listening to too many Pete Seeger LPs. The generic melodies and guitar solos, meanwhile, aren’t charged with the hot blood needed to enliven the limp lyrics. (That Cooder should keep his peerless musicianship this strenuously in check is stupefying; his repetitive bottleneck work on “Cold, Cold Feeling” constitutes a severe regression from the Art Tatum-like ornamentation he wrestled onto John Hiatt’s “Memphis in the Meantime.”) Though Cooder’s clearly singing and playing from his bleeding heart on Election Special, the results make one wish that he’d pass both his mic and his guitar back to his brain.