Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mark Knopfler’s “Tracker”: Guitar Poems, None Finer

If all you know of Mark Knopfler is Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing,” the “Money for Nothing” video, and the theme song from “Local Hero,” you haven’t been listening for twenty or thirty years.

“Tracker,” just released, is Knopfler’s eighth solo album since Dire Straits broke up for good and all in 1995; and I have spent much of the past three days with it.

I own all of Knopfler’s albums—they’re all I buy on CD anymore—and I treasure each. Knopfler’s listed #27 among Rolling Stone’s all-time greatest guitarists, but that’s a joke. Factor in the poetry and Mark Knopfler is in a universe all his own.

I would love to claim Knopfler as a fellow Catholic, but I can’t, or if he is one, he isn’t saying. His songs are good ones for Holy Week, though. They might as well be subtitled the Broken Body of Christ.

Almost all of them concern an invisible person, often down on his or her luck, usually looking back on “time and young love thrown away.” The line is from his tune about poet Basil Bunting, who hailed from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, like Knopfler. The second tune on “Tracker” finds Basil writing “fish and chip words” for a local newspaper because “poets have to eat as well.”

Also featured on the new album are songs about a ditch-digger, a boxer (“Broken Bones”), and the Liverpool novelist Beryl Bainbridge, who was overlooked for a Booker Prize by the hoity-toity Oxford electors “after all she gave / after all she gave.” Ruth Moody, vocalist with The Wailin’ Jennys, sings back-up on several songs then makes a surprise appearance on the final track.

Each Mark Knopfler album is like a springtime garden in which, at first, nothing much seems to show, and what shows is close to the ground. The guitar licks catch you first. According to the liner notes, Knopfler plays “all guitars” on all tracks; and having seen him in concert twice—where he played a different instrument for each song—I can tell you that Mark Knopfler has plenty of guitars.

The knock on Knopfler, however, is that he’s all guitar and no voice, and that even the guitar is understated. So you have to live with a Knopfler album a while, the way you live with a garden. If you watch the garden long enough, you’ll see amazing life and then finally you’ll see one flower that surprises you, popping up after a time, and lasting for as long as you want to listen to it.

This special flower usually seems to fall somewhere around the eighth or ninth track—hidden away near the back of the list. On Knopfler’s previous album, the double “Privateering,” there were two discs and two flowers I particularly treasure.

“Yon Two Crows” is the monolog of a shepherd dripping with rain while observing a pair of black birds on a distant tree. “Dream of the Drowned Submariner” is exactly what it says: the stream of consciousness of a man drowning. That it is a father-daughter tune particularly endears it to me.

We run along easy at periscope depth 
Sun dappling through clear water 
So went the dream of the drowned submariner 
Far away from the slaughter 

Your hair is a strawflower that sings in the sun 
My darling, my beautiful daughter 
So went the dream of the drowned submariner 
Cast away on the water 

From down in the vault, down in the grave 
Reaching up to the light on the waves 

So she did run to him over the grass 
She fell in his arms and he caught her 
So went the dream of the drowned submariner 
Far away on the water 
Far away on the water 

“Tracker” may be Knopfler’s most autobiographical album, though I don’t know him well enough to say. The first track, “Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes,” features a photo of the young Mark over the liner lyrics; and the story, about a young musician in London and the girl he went around with, may be Knopfler’s own. The girl disappears from his life and only later does he understand that she may have become a prostitute: “I suppose by then I’d realized / You’d run into hard times.”

My special track on “Tracker” is #9. It’s called “Silver Eagle.” Like “Beyond My Wildest Dreams,” found on his collaborative album with Emmy Lou Harris, it concerns a long-haul trucker singing to his absent lady-love. In “Dreams” the lady is still part of the trucker’s life. In “Eagle,” not.

The Silver Eagle is “passing / Half a mile from where she lay.” The final verse goes:

Road signs flow into the headlights
Whisper names and fall behind
He finds some honor in the darkness
Hopes for grace and peace of mind
And he thinks of how they’d lay together
He’d run his fingers through her hair
And he wonders if she’ll ever
Come to know that he was there.

Love and loss and the hope for grace—these are the themes that speak to me in the poetry of Mark Knopfler.

At a time when Mick Jagger is still singing “Satisfaction,” though he swore he never would, Mark Knopfler is delivering it, and none greater than today.

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