Mark Knopfler’s solo career must be something of a disappointment to many Dire Straits fans. He seems to have completely hung up his guitar god badge, and after five solo albums (not counting soundtracks), seems intent on seeing his folk interests to their logical end. This really shouldn’t come as any surprise, though. Despite the irony that MTV helped pour tons of “money for nothing” into Dire Straits’ wallets for the uptempo songs from 1985’s Brothers in Arms, it was the album’s title track—sombre, precise, and stately—that defined the record’s soul. Before that, with songs like “Romeo & Juliet” and even “Sultans of Swing”, Knopfler had proven himself a fan of the rock song as vignette. Soundtracks like Local Hero and The Princess Bride found him honing the quiet, pastoral approach that’s typified his post-Straits career.
Despite the seeming aggressiveness of its title (which actually refers to a painter’s desire to get a color on his palette), Kill to Get Crimson finds Knopfler further perfecting his gentle, lilting, delicate solo style. With the help of accordion, fiddle, vibes, horns, and his warm signature guitar sound, Knopfler’s created a subtle record, one that’s extremely pleasant to the ear, but which offers vivid stories for those inclined to listen more deeply.
The album’s only real misstep—and it’s a slight, arguable one—might be found in “The Scaffolder’s Wife”. Knopfler chooses to adorn his tale of a dissatisfied partner with woodwinds that sound like a product of the ‘60s or ‘70s, but by the time Knopfler comes in with a sympathetic, decidedly un-folky guitar solo, things meld together better. If it’s glaring, it’s only due to Knopfler’s tendency to reference much earlier times on Kill to Get Crimson. “The Fish and the Bird”, a tale of a girl’s love for a tinker boy, recalls English ballads, as does “Madame Geneva’s”, with its references to penny-a-sheet ballads, hawkers, sack, and the hangman. Even when his tales are decidedly more modern, as when a boxer recalls dancing lessons from his school days (“Secondary Waltz”), Knopfler opts for an actual waltz (a feel that permeates much of the disc, actually). If Kill to Get Crimson has a spiritual relative outside of Knopfler’s own work, it might be Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music, where Prince’s “Kiss” shared the stage with the traditional “King Henry V’s Conquest of France” in a musical history lesson.
Kill to Get Crimson is nowhere near as wide-ranging as that—its most boisterous track, “Punish the Monkey”, which sounds like a vintage Dire Straits cut, also sounds like an aberration amongst the disc’s more pensive songs. Apart from that one nod to Knopfler’s rock past, “True Love Will Never Fade” might be the only other nod to contemporary music, and then only because the vocal melody recalls Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind”. But Kill to Get Crimson conveys a very real sense that Knopfler’s incorporating not only his chops as a pop songwriter, but also his lessons as a student of traditional music. It all blends together so well that even the kaleidoscopic interludes that accent “Heart Full of Holes”, a dusty portrait of an old pawnbroker, make sense once you hear them.
If there’s a downside to Knopfler’s increasingly introspective approach, it’s that some listeners might not give it a proper chance; Knopfler’s vocals have always contained a hazy quality, and some songs on Crimson take on that same unassuming feel. This listener made the mistake of giving it a first listen in the car during rush hour, which didn’t work at all; it wasn’t until later, more peaceful listens that the disc’s qualities began to unfold. It’s definitely a record that needs multiple listens to fully reveal itself. Knopfler’s been working towards this sound throughout his solo career, and with Kill to Get Crimson, he offers his most cohesive record yet.