In 2020, Warner Records released a Dire Straits box set plainly titled The Studio Albums 1978-1991, and it pretty much covered everything. The only thing missing from the six-CD/LP collection was the 1983 EP ExtendedancEPlay (to this day, only “Twisting by the Pool” has seen a digital release). Dire Straits’ output remains relatively straightforward if you ignore the handful of live releases peppered here and there throughout the band’s discography. Things aren’t that cut-and-dry when it comes to the band’s lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Knopfler‘s solo career.
The new box from Warner Records, The Studio Albums 1996-2007, picks up long after Knopfler started making music outside of Dire Straits. His earliest soundtrack assignment was to score the film Local Hero back in 1983. By the time his band had permanently called it a day in the 1990s, he had scored four more movies. In 1990, his face adorned two non-cinematic releases, Missing…Presumed to be Having a Good Time with the country-rock supergroup the Notting Hillbillies and Neck and Neck with the late guitar legend Chet Atkins. To call 1996’s Golden Heart his debut solo album may be correct in a technical sense, but it just doesn’t feel right. But with a discography like Knopfler’s, you have to start somewhere, and Golden Heart seems like a good place to start.
Then there’s the music Knopfler recorded and released during this period that didn’t make the box set, like the soundtracks to the films Wag the Dog, Metroland, and A Shot at Glory, the studio EP One Take Radio Sessions, and his best-selling collaborative album with Emmylou Harris All the Roadrunning. What The Studio Albums 1996-2007 lacks in technicalities it makes up for with a fifth CD titled Gravy Train: The B-Sides 1996-2007. It may only be nine songs clocking in at just under 37 minutes, but it’s nice to have them all in one place instead of having to scour digital platforms to create a playlist. The first five box set CDs run in chronological order, but Gravy Train jumps around, probably to create its own album flow. Each CD comes packaged in mini-LP sleeves with lyrics folded up and tucked inside. Each album also has a corresponding card cut in the dimensions on a CD jewel case’s insert. It’s not much a perk, but held up against the Dire Straits box from two years ago, it’s almost half-an-inch taller.
Enough with the details, what about the music? Was Knopfler able to step out from the long shadows cast by “Money for Nothing”, “Walk of Life”, and “Sultans of Swing?” Judging by quality alone, the solo career for one of arena rock’s most laid-back songwriters started off pretty good and only got better. Knopfler wound up right where he wanted to be in terms of commercial success, with a devoted fan base that embraced his every move while not propelling him back into the whirlwind world of top 40 radio. Shangri-La is, debatably, the crowning achievement of this phase of his solo career, and the fact that it appeared almost 20 years after the commercial smash of Brothers in Arms should instill a great deal of hope in us all. If an old dog can’t learn new tricks, an old dog can still dazzle. We may even learn to enjoy said old trick nearly 20 years after it was completed.
Golden Heart finds Knopfler at an artistic crossroads, a combination of the Celtic leanings that influenced his score for Cal and the big-budget production that Warner Brothers relied on to make Dire Straits swansong On Every Street a financial success. The slower and moderately-paced songs outnumber the upbeat ones like “No Can Do” and “Don’t You Get It,” both of which ride on Knopfler finger-plucked Stratocaster bounce for their boogie. “Imelda” certainly wouldn’t be out of place if played in the background of a bar fight, but it’s the smooth ode to the proverbial waiting man “Rüdiger” that remained in his band’s repertoire when he recorded the off-the-cuff EP One Take Radio Sessions.
After a break to score two movies, Knopfler’s solo career hit the ground running with 2000’s surprisingly successful Sailing to Philadelphia. This was an album with two different track listings, depending on where in the world you purchased the album. The Studio Albums 1996-2007 combines both versions, bringing “One More Matinee” and “Do America”, together onto one disc. From the first bars of “What It Is”, you can tell that something new is brewing, something that was a little too stormy for the calm waters of Golden Heart. Here, Knopfler eased up on the Celtic influence just a tad as he juiced up the tempo and dynamics, offering infectious brain worms such as “Who’s Your Baby Now”, “Do America”, and the steady build of “Speedway of Nazareth” featuring vocal harmonies from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Unfortunately, two songs are weighed down by distractingly prominent vocal duets with James Taylor and Van Morrison. “The Last Laugh” could stand up on its own without Morrison’s moaning warble, but it’s the title track that doesn’t stand a chance. Ostensibly based on the Thomas Pynchon novel Mason & Dixon, all the musicality in the word can’t hide the cornball history.
Knopfler rode the momentum by releasing The Ragpicker’s Dream two years later. There may not be any immediate standouts, but “Marbletown” and the single “Why Aye Man” give an extra snap in his acoustic folk, while “Quality Shoe” sets a soft shuffle to a melody, not unlike Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”.
Shangri-La arrived just two years later, an album as colorful and varied as the slot machine on its cover. Knopfler wrote an inspired batch of songs dedicated to Sonny Liston, Lonnie Donegan, Elvis Presley, and – for better or worse – Ray Kroc. You may never find a more infectious toe-tapper about McDonald’s than “Boom, Like That”. Shangri-La was recorded after Knopfler’s life-threatening motorcycle accident, leaving little doubt as to what the French-flavored ballad “Don’t Crash the Ambulance” was about.
Most of 2006 found Knopfler and Emmylou Harris touring in promotion of their album All the Roadrunning. Kill to Get Crimson appeared the following year, an album that mirrored The Ragpicker’s Dream in overall character. In other words, it’s a sturdy body of work but most of the songs rely on numerous spins to summon their true potential. The school daze recollection that is “Secondary Waltz” is charming, while “Punish the Monkey” carries its anti-corporation sentiment softly: “Punish the monkey / And let the organ grinder go.” Kill to Get Crimson may sound like an aggressive album title (reflecting lyrics that give voice to a painter’s melodramatic wish), but the red scooters on the cover are more indicative of the album’s mood: Sure, you’re going places, but at a leisurely pace.
Gravy Train is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. All you completists out there, this “album” is for you. But if you’re on the fence when it comes to Knopfler’s solo career, songs like “Gravy Train”, “My Claim to Fame”, and “Small Potatoes”, the last of which has a guitar riff that sounds too much like “What It Is”, aren’t really going to sway you one way or the other. Then you have fun tracks like “What Have I Got to Do”, “Tall Order Baby”, and “Summer of Love” that have the potential to lure you further down the Knopfler rabbit hole should you so choose. Considering that this is an album of castaways, the concluding sequence of “Let See You” and “The Long Highway”, both b-sides to “What It Is”, makes for a superbly subtle climax and subsequent falling action.
We all know the Mark Knopfler story doesn’t end there. There are easily another six CDs of material ready for a sequel to this box. 2012’s Privateering was a double album, and there are enough scattered bonus tracks from early editions of Get Lucky, Tracker, and Down the Road Wherever to fill an extra CD. But, hey, one thing at a time; 75 songs stretching close to six hours is more than enough for a start. The Studio Albums 1996-2007 may not be comprehensive in the strictest sense of the word. Still, there are enough great songs inside to convince just about anyone that there can be worthwhile second acts in contemporary British life. This is the sound of a man who has had the financial means and industry clout to pursue his own musical interests for 11-going-on-26 years. It’s what it is.