If Mark Knopfler were to retire now, at 65, no one could accuse him of leading a lazy working life. Since forming Dire Straits with his brother in 1977, the much-lauded guitar maestro has worked on scores of albums and tackled chart-topping rock, bluesy songs, film scores, Americana, folk and ‘soft rock’. In that time he’s also collaborated with a spread of illustrious names (Brian Ferry, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris…), produced material for Bob Dylan and Tina Turner, won four Grammys, an Ivor Novello Award… and been awarded four honorary doctorates. Bloody hell.
So it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that his latest works have taken a more toned-down approach. A rip-roaring rave, this newest release is not. The Tracker-era Knopfler is so laid back he’s essentially horizontal. Accordingly there will doubtless be those who cry ‘what softie bollocks is this?!’ or similar. And yet, still echoing some of that Dire Straits spirit which led Knopfler to superstardom, Tracker might just be on to something. It doesn’t ‘rock hard’ so much as ‘sway gently’, but amid those peaceful pastoral soundscapes lie intelligent, quietly wonderful qualities. The sound of a man enjoying his lot, and not overly fussed about what anyone else thinks.
We begin with a jazzy Mike Stern-meets-Dave Brubeck shuffle, which slides into Celtic folk tones, accompanied by a fresh-from-the-bar-stool refrain of “laughs and jokes and drinks and smokes” (from which the song takes its title). Things get increasingly cosy from here on. River Towns is a big lovely cuddle in a song – music for sinking into sofas, drinking Ovaltine and gazing contentedly at rural scenes. Or maybe fishing (the sedate kind, not the Robson Green kind), also suggested in the world-worn, fatherly manner of Mighty Man. He almost hits country territory with the likes of Long Cool Girl, amid the gauzy Celtic swing – or certainly a hint of that ‘lonesome cowboy’ feel, as his voice reaches velvety depths.
Ahhh yes, soft piano lines, understated strains of saxophone, acoustic prettiness and electric touches… Not the stuff of rock god dreams, but perfect fodder for the more contemplative pockets in a rock fan’s life. Knopfler’s days of tearing up fretboards might be behind him (even in his rockstar heyday, he was never the excessive noodler suggested by his many guitarist accolades), but his time of thoughtful, elegant songwriting is very much alive.
Buy this and play on your next lazy Sunday, with coffee and a newspaper. Or a large cake. Whatever your poison. Either way, Tracker will sort you out.