Mark Knopfler has settled. He has found his place. You couldn’t find a more consistent singer/songwriter/guitarist out there if you tried. The former Dire Straits frontman has been delivering solo albums on a reliable basis since 2000, and none of them turned out to be lemons.
However, as unkind as you think this next statement will sound, I certainly don’t mean it that way: “consistent” can’t be confused for “best”. As prolific as Knopfler has been in recent years, his music has become easier to swallow with each release. In order to give an album like Tracker a fair shake, we need to take Knopfler’s inoffensive manner as a given and evaluate the album accordingly. Knowing what we know about Mark Knopfler’s music in the 21st century (only one soundtrack, so far), does Tracker have a magnetic pull to it or is it just marking time? I hate to do this to you, but… it’s a little bit of both.
Tracker is just a small hike from 2007’s Kill to Get Crimson. There’s no “Boom, Like That”, no “What It Is”, no “Why Aye Man”. The most uptempo moments, such as “Broken Bones” and “Beryl”, breeze by instead of drive. Knopfler’s knack for English folk remains as subdued as it ever was. He still finds ways to write a good waltz melody and has fortunately come to realize that the blues is not his strong suit.
Tracker starts off with one of these terrific songs in three-quarter time, one that could get stuck in your brain before the week’s end. “Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes” is the sound of growing up socially happy in London while not counting your money: “We were young, so young and always broke / Not that we ever cared.” Knopfler and his band also treat it as a moment to stretch out the music and let it breathe. At over six minutes, the “song” itself doesn’t really start right away and takes the long road when ending.
In fact, most of Tracker isn’t wound very tight (the 16-track edition lasts 77 minutes). “Skydiver”, a day in the life of a devil-may-care gambler set to something akin to the Lovin’ Spoonful, relies on its simple chorus quite a bit. When English folk meets Americana on “River Towns”, Knopfler is in even less of a hurry to take the song anywhere—not that it has anywhere to go. These are “sorry river towns”, after all.
It seems that Mark Knopfler will never run out of narratives, as long as his literary interests maintain their tight grip on his songs. The poet Basil Bunting gets his own waltz through the humbling eyes of a young copyboy, working for little money and facing clientele who are “grumpy as hell”. Knopfler expresses his mystification as to why Beryl Bainbridge never won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction through song. He likened the song to his Dire Straits output, though it probably would have been too easy-going to stand out on any of those old albums. Even without the aide of heavy reading, Knopfler’s songs never settle for anything trite. He can make getting your ass kicked sound close to poetic, as you will notice that the wah-stomp “Broken Bones” gives more pain bang for your boxing buck than with 2004’s “Song for Sonny Liston”: “You take it like a man on the chin / And you don’t make a fuss when the towel comes in.”
It’s hard to nail down a specific identity for Tracker. The quality of each song is consistently good, but the album doesn’t feel very cohesive when you step back to consider the whole package. You will warm up to some songs considerable quicker than others, almost to the point where slower and quieter numbers are in danger of being overlooked. “Wherever I Go”, the track the closes out most editions of Tracker, will likely be remembered more as a vocal duet with Ruth Moody than a distinctive closer. But depending on what format you spring for, you can clinch Tracker with the dirty Stones-esque ditty “Hot Dog”—“It’s either you or me.”
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