A strong sense of nostalgia runs through Mark Knopfler’s eighth solo album, Tracker, continuing a trajectory that the guitarist/songwriter has been following for a number years. There is no yearning, however, for the stadium rocking days of Dire Straits here, but a reflection on earlier, simpler days. While the opening track, ‘Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes’, does make a passing reference to his former outfit (those early days in London when he “left to start a band”), this is a song that celebrates the humble freedoms of pre-stardom. In this vein, Tracker offers a collection of short stories and character sketches that are evocative of another time.
In terms of songwriting and sound, we are also a fair distance from Dire Straits. This should hardly be a surprise considering that Knopfler has now made two more studio albums as a solo artist than he ever did with his previous band (more if you include his film soundtrack work). He seems content to move on and leave his erstwhile songwriting legacy in the hands of tribute acts, such as The Dire Straits Experience, who played a very impressive gig here last year.
And yet, there remains something reassuringly familiar to Tracker: the sprawling, distinctive sound of the guitar, the laconic vocal delivery. There is also the occasional musical throwback, such as shades of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Wild West End’ in ‘Long Cool Girl’, which also happens to be one of the standout tracks on the LP. But the big riffs and the prog rock arrangements of Knopfler’s early eighties output are all gone, replaced by folk, lazy blues and a touch of country.
This mix is typified by the album opener, which starts out in cool blues mode, before giving way to strains of Celtic folk and a bar-room sing-a-long before resolving to a charming solo section. It mostly moves along at a measured pace, such as the wistful ‘River Towns’ and the slow waltz of ‘Basil’, a character portrait drawn from Knopfler’s youthful journalism days. There are some more upbeat moments offered by the bluesy boxer’s tale, ‘Broken Bones’, and the laidback lead guitar of ‘Beryl’, lamenting how author Beryl Bainbridge died without having won a Booker. The album closes in a country-infused duet with Ruth Moody, ‘Wherever I Go’. It’s a soft, melancholic tune that is reminiscent of All The Road Running, Knopfler’s collaboration with Emmylou Harris.
Tracker is a relaxing, enjoyable and engaging listen from start to finish. Knopfler’s trademark perfectionism as a producer is once again on display in this album. The sound is crystal clear throughout and the songs are meticulously arranged with a variety of instrumentation.
While previous album, Privateering, was a double LP that sprawled a little too far and would have worked better cut to conventional album length, this release feels more focused and satisfying. You got the feeling that earlier in his solo career, there was record company pressure to produce at least one Straits style single per album. But now Knopfler, who was always the least fashionable of rock stars, is only interested in producing the kind of music he wants to make (when was the last time you heard some moody saxophone?). In this respect he is reflected in the character in ‘Skydiver’ who sings “I don’t give a damn about a thing”. In an era dominated by manufactured music this is a refreshing approach, and has culminated in one of Knopfler’s best solo albums.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor
Photos courtesy of markknopfler.com (© MarkKnopfler.com 2005-2015) and wikimedia