In 2020, Warner Records released a clearly titled Dire Straits box set The studio albums 1978-1991, and that pretty much covered it all. The only thing missing from the six-CD/LP collection was the 1983 EP ExtendedanceEPlay (to date, only “Twisting by the Pool” has seen a digital release). Dire Straits’ production remains relatively straightforward if you ignore the handful of live releases sprinkled here and there throughout the band’s discography. Things are not so clear cut when it comes to singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Knopfler’s solo career.
The new box of Warner Records, The studio albums 1996-2007, picks up long after Knopfler started making music outside of Dire Straits. His first soundtrack assignment was to score the film local hero in 1983. By the time his band had definitely called it a day in the 1990s, he had scored four more films. In 1990, her face graced two non-film releases, Disappeared…supposed to have a good time with country-rock supergroup The Notting Hillbillies and Tied with the late guitarist Chet Atkins. To call 1996 Gold heart his first solo album may be technically correct, but it just doesn’t feel right. But with a discography like Knopfler’s, you have to start somewhere, and Gold heart seems like a good starting point.
Then there’s the music that Knopfler recorded and released around this time that didn’t make the box set, like the soundtracks of the movies Walk the dog, Metrolandand A shot at glorythe EP studio One Take Radio Sessionsand his best-selling collaborative album with Emmylou Harris All Roadrunning. What The studio albums 1996-2007 lack of technicality which he compensates with a fifth CD entitled Gravy Train: The B-sides 1996-2007. It might only be nine songs recorded in just under 37 minutes, but it’s nice to have them all in one place instead of having to scour digital platforms to build a playlist. The first five CDs in the set work in chronological order, but gravy train hops around, presumably to create his own album feed. Each CD is packaged in mini-LP sleeves with the lyrics folded and stored inside. Each album also has a corresponding card cut to size on the insert of a CD case. It’s not much of an advantage, but against Dire Straits’ box of two years ago, it’s almost half an inch taller.
Enough with the details, what about the music? Was Knopfler able to step out of the long shadows cast by “Money for Nothing,” “Walk of Life” and “Sultans of Swing?” Judging by quality alone, the solo career of one of the most laid-back songwriters in the rock arena started out pretty well and only got better. Knopfler found himself where he wanted to be in terms of commercial success, with a devoted fanbase that embraced his every move without propelling him into the whirlwind world of top 40 radio. Shangri La is, without doubt, the crowning achievement of this phase of his solo career, and the fact that he appeared almost 20 years after the commercial success of Brothers in arms should instill great hope in all of us. If an old dog can’t learn new tricks, an old dog can still dazzle. We can even learn to appreciate this old trick nearly 20 years after it was completed.
Gold 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 In every street financial success. Slower, moderately paced songs outnumber more upbeat ones like “No Can Do” and “Don’t You Get It,” both of which roll on Knopfler’s pinched-finger 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 sweet ode to the proverbial waiter “Rüdiger” that remained in his band’s repertoire when he recorded the improvised EP. One Take Radio Sessions.
After taking a break to score two movies, Knopfler’s solo career took off with the surprisingly successful 2000s. Sailing to Philadelphia. It was an album with two different track listings, depending on where in the world you purchased the album. The studio albums 1996-2007 combines the two versions, bringing together “One More Matinee” and “Do America”, on a single disc. From the first bars of “What It Is”, we feel that something new is brewing, something a little too stormy for the calm waters of Gold heart. Here Knopfler toned down the Celtic influence a bit by upping the tempo and dynamics, delivering infectious brain verses such as “Who’s Your Baby Now”, “Do America” and the steady build of “Speedway of Nazareth”. featuring vocal harmonies by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Unfortunately, two songs are weighed down by distracting vocal duets with James Taylor and Van Morrison. “The Last Laugh” might stand without Morrison’s moaning twitter, but it’s the title track that doesn’t stand a chance. Apparently based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon Mason & Dixonall the musicality of the word cannot hide the history of cornball.
Knopfler took advantage of the momentum by releasing The ragpicker’s dream two years later. There may not be any immediate standouts, but “Marbletown” and single “Why Aye Man” lend an extra slam to its acoustic folk, while “Quality Shoe” lends a sweet blend to a melody, a bit like “King of the” by Roger Miller. Road”.
Shangri La arrives barely 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 fatal motorcycle accident, leaving little doubt about the subject of the French-flavored ballad “Don’t Crash the Ambulance”.
Most of 2006 found Knopfler and Emmylou Harris touring in support of their album All Roadrunning. Kill to get crimson appeared the following year, an album which reflected The ragpicker’s dream in general character. In other words, it’s solid work, but most songs rely on lots of rotations to summon their true potential. The school-escapist memento that is “Secondary Waltz” is charming, while “Punish the Monkey” gently carries its anti-corporate sentiment: “Punish the monkey / And let the organ grinder go.” Kill to get crimson may sound like an aggressive album title (reflecting lyrics that express a painter’s melodramatic wish), but the red scooters on the cover are more indicative of the album’s mood: Of Course You’re Going Somewhere , but at a leisurely pace.
gravy train is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. All finalists, 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” which have the potential to lure you further down the Knopfler rabbit hole if you wish. Considering this is a castaway album, the ending sequence of “Let See You” and “The Long Highway”, both B-sides of “What It Is”, provides a superbly subtle climax and subsequent drop action.
We all know the Mark Knopfler story doesn’t end there. There are easily six more material CDs ready for a sequel to this box. 2012 Piracy was a double album, and there are enough bonus tracks scattered around from the first editions of To be lucky, Trackerand On the road anywhere to fill an additional CD. But, hey, one thing at a time; 75 songs spanning nearly six hours are plenty to get you started. The studio albums 1996-2007 may not be exhaustive in the strictest sense of the term. Still, there are enough good songs within to convince just about anyone that there can be interesting second acts in contemporary British life. It’s the sound of a man who had the financial wherewithal and the industry clout to pursue his own musical interests for 11 years and over 26 years. It is what it is.