The risk in writing political songs, especially about specific issues and historical periods, is that over time, those that are run of the mill become dated. Not everyone can write timeless tunes like Woody Guthrie, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, and Bob Marley. Given the content of Election Special, Ry Cooder knew the risks going in and welcomed them. Using American traditional musics -- raw blues, folk, and roots rock -- Cooder's songs express what he considers to be, as both an artist and a pissed-off citizen, the high-stakes historical gamble of the 2012 presidential and congressional contest. He wrote and recorded this album as a witness to the era. Other than drums (played by his son Joachim) and some backing vocals, Cooder plays everything here. He uses foreboding acoustic blues in "Mutt Romney Blues" (written from the point of view of the candidate Mitt Romney's dog). The more poignant "Brother Is Gone" is at first blush a seemingly heart-wrenching folk tale fueled by Cooder's mandolin. Yet it slowly and purposely relates a deal-with-the-devil fantasy about conservatives Charles and David Koch. It's among the finest songs he's written. But Cooder rocks up his anger too: "Guantanamo" is a raucous barroom strut. "Cold Cold Feeling" is a deep, slow garage blues that's chilling in its effectiveness. His screed is a link in a chain of political blues tunes that date back to the Delta. "Going to Tampa" is a cut-time string band country tune. It's a farce about the 2012 Republican National Convention as hijacked by the Tea Party. He accuses both of outright racism and social engineering, with scathing humor. The album's finest cut is the dark, Delta-style electric blues of "Kool-Aid," which recalls Junior Kimbrough musically. Guthrie's own spirit is evoked in the antiwar narrative "The 90 and the 9," with its singalong choruses. Election Special closes with a scorching, rocking blues entitled "Take Your Hands Off It." It's a militant anthem that demands that the Constitution and Bill of Rights be returned to their rightful place at the heart of mainstream American life. Sure enough, because of its soapbox style, Election Special is the most overtly political album of Cooder's career. As such, it serves two purposes: one is that it is the most organic record he's issued in almost two decades; and, more importantly, it restores topical protest music to a bona fide place in American cultural life.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek