In 1985 Mark Knopfler must have been a smug man. His band Dire Straits had just produced the nine times platinum selling album Brothers in Arms; an album produced on a Caribbean island with their good friend Gordon Sumner, aka Sting. As if life wasn’t hard enough, their concerts were almost as profitable as the businesses of the stockbroking fraternity that attended them. The ‘Geordie lad’ had very much left the dingy pubs of the East End and never looked back.
This is ironic because in 2015, Knopfler is back in the dingy pub. He’s still making a lot of money no doubt, but his attention has turned from the yuppies and returned to the down to earth grit of his formative years. This has been his line following the disbanding of Dire Straits. The resulting albums have provided a satisfying mix of folky Celtic sounds with laid-back blues-rock. This new style reached its zenith with 2010’s Get Lucky where he dropped the last vestiges of rock stardom to create a poignant and beautiful swan song to the influences of his youth. In short, he’s done the commercial stuff, he’s done the ‘return to your roots stuff’: so what’s next?
On one level his latest offering, Tracker, is a great-follow up. On another, it’s seriously lacking. Tracker is a competent and well-crafted album, and its merits as a stand-alone work cannot be denied. At the same time it’s clear that Tracker has just recycled the ‘return to your roots’ trick, yet again. To appraise Tracker is the same as appraising Knopfler’s solo work, for it is virtually indistinguishable. While this is a credit to the album, it’s a discredit to the development of Knopfler’s career.
If you’ve never heard Knopfler’s solo work, this is the perfect place to start. All the hallmarks of his oeuvre are here. One of the standout features is the consistently pitch perfect production. From the opening notes, you can almost feel the lumbering acoustic bass of his Gibson resonating as if you were sitting right next to him. The sound is masterfully clear and well balanced yet also infused with a sense of age and grit which for a second makes you believe you really are in that dingy pub surrounded by disillusionment and despair. Then you remember it’s probably been forty years since Knopfler was in that pub or indeed felt any sense of poverty stricken hopelessness. His solo work has often assumed this tone of wistful melancholy as he recounts working class stories told through the imagined stories of hard done individuals. Tracker no less than other albums has its fair share of social realism: “We were young, so young, And always broke” or indeed “If you got no place to go, I got my home from river rats, The only home I know”. But he gets away with it; he sings with such conviction and feeling that the lyrics never feel too disingenuous or conceited. Nevertheless, the songs are so beautifully played that any cynicism is seduced into mellow complicity by Knopfler’s languorous groans, his band and his spectacular array of guitars.
All this is great, but it didn’t warrant Tracker. The above is applicable to any one of his albums. Most of them share the formula of Dickensian storytelling, impeccable production and beautiful musicianship. True, only after Get Lucky did it come together in a style properly distinct from Dire Straits, but arguably most of the elements were there since day one of his solo career. So, in answer to the question ‘what next’, disappointingly the answer is same old, same old.
I say ‘disappointingly’, perhaps this is unfair. There is undeniably a charm about the post-Dire Straits style Knopfler has eased into. I’ve seen him play in a massive arena, and despite the anonymity of the venue he still walks on stage with amicable glee as if he were one of his characters meeting a friend in the dingy pub. It’s as if the gargantuan crowd is sitting with him round a pint as he cracks some jokes with the (excellent) band. He’s in a good place and he knows it: a happy summation to his career combining his earthy roots with the flashy production and guitar work of his youth. Tracker is a happy repetition of this formula. It probably helps that the city boys on early retirement still buy the records and one might suspect that this has allowed Knopfler to slip into aging self-indulgence. However, neither can it be said that this is a lazy album; it is an eminently solid effort. Nonetheless, I still live in hope Knopfler will one day deliver a fresh third period to his career.