Most us of reviewers at Lady Obscure Music Magazine and also most of you who reads those articles are surely experienced and dedicated metalheads, but I suppose I wouldn’t be much wrong if I say we all have our guilty pleasures regarding other music genres. While I would never go as far as reviewing, say, electronic music or hip-hop simply because those genres do not appeal to me in any way, I can occasionally whip out some obscure review of country, folk or even blues-oriented album. In this particular case, it also helps that the main songwriter behind the record I’m writing about is quite a well-known musician in the rock circles due to his famous past with the band called Dire Straits. I’m talking, of course, about Mark Knopfler.
Mark Knopfler actively began his solo career after Dire Straits dissolved in 1995; he released eight solo albums since then, Tracker being the ninth. His solo albums usually feature quite a big cast of musicians, and of course, an equally huge amount of brilliant musicianship. For instance, besides the maestro himself performing vocal and guitar duties, on Tracker you can also hear Guy Fletcher on keyboards and vocals, Glenn Worf on bass, Ian Thomas on drums, Bruce Molsky on banjo, rhythm guitar and fiddle, John McCusker on cittern and also on fiddle too (if you think that’s all, you’re dead wrong). There’s also Nigel Hitchcock on saxophone, Phil Cunningham on accordion, Mike McGoldrick graces us with his wooden flute and whistle playing, and Tom Walsh plays trumper on this album. This list of musicians and their instruments neatly represents the style of music Mark plays, and if you want to grasp it fully, I can just tell you it’s quite the usual set of instruments appearing on Mark’s albums, with occasional appearances of wild clarinets, mandolins, uilleann pipes, harps, organs, bouzoukis and other stuff. You’ve got to admit, it sounds like a lot of fun.
And while some of Mark’s songs certainly cater for having fun, a huge chunk of material he writes nowadays tends to project a relaxed, soothing atmosphere. The acoustic playing with some occasional specks and streaks of electric guitar playing along with deep, calm and soulful Mark’s voice is the primary recipe for creating those serene songs speaking directly to the listeners; and obviously, the wonderful sense of melody and remarkable songwriting helps too. So far, nearly every solo album by Mark was a mix of those melancholic songs with some more upbeat tracks, and Tracker isn’t an exception. That’s what Mark himself said about the album’s title:
The album title ‘Tracker’ arrived out of me trying to find my way over the decades. Out of me tracking time – looking at people, places and things from my past, and out of the process of tracking as in recording tracks in the studio.
This album definitely lives up to the title, reflecting both more playful and sparkling side of Mark’s musicianship while complementing it with more serious approach, and sometimes combining them. For example, the very first track is called Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes, and as you can probably guess from the title, this one isn’t “more serious approach”, not at all. To an extent, the same goes to businesslike tunes, such as River Towns, and Broken Bones. Both those songs are quite different in execution, yet they share some similar strokes in their mood, even though it’s not that obvious from the first listen. Broken Bones is faster and more chaotic, and River Towns is slower and well-ordered, but both songs share the sense of storyteller’s resignation, even if in the different ways. Another businesslike tune on the album is Skydiver. Its verses kind of make me want to get up and start dancing, and I appreciate quite experimental chorus here; overall this tune has that uplifting and positively light-hearted vibe. There are also three ballads in the first part of the album, namely Basil, Mighty Man and Long Cool Girl, and while they’re enjoyable enough, they feel a bit too standard and unexciting for Mark’s solo work, especially if you compare them with the tunes coming up near the end of this record.
The album’s ending is exactly what prevents me to look at songs like Basil or Mighty Man objectively, because Mark apparently left all the outstanding material to close the album with a bang. Lights of Taormina, Silver Eagle, Beryl and Wherever I Go — this impeccable four-songs-run is one of the best things Mark has done in his solo career, in my opinion; and therefore it’s difficult to judge the rest of material evenly. So instead of that, let’s focus on these four incredibly strong points. Lights of Taormina is a definite highlight of Tracker, and I daresay it’s the best song on it, being a contemplative, self-reflecting and reminiscent ballad. When I hear this song, the image of a man sitting near the campfire burning on a hilltop with guitar in his hands, looking down at the medieval city just after the sun has set springs into my mind, and once again the overall tone of this tune reflects this almost precisely. Silver Eagle is yet another ballad, much more melancholic and quiet, and it makes total sense to put it after Lights of Taormina — the previous song was still quite lively and buzzing, and this tune is performed almost solely with vocals and acoustic guitars, wrapping yet another busy day with a soulful song. The campfire has died out now, and the only man who’s performing is the guitar’s player, while the other people are just transfixed and are quietly listening to this last song of the day.
Beryl provides one last spark of energy after two ballads, being quite a rocking song about an English writer Beryl Bainbridge. This tune is the one with most rock-ish attitude on Tracker, and it achieves it in only three minutes. Mark’s subtle yet persistent electric guitar playing enhances this tune big time, and overall it’s a nice change of pace just before the album’s closer, Wherever I Go, slowly rolls in. This majestic, solemn tune epitomizes the awesomeness of Mark’s view on writing ballads and those wistful, soulful songs in general. Featuring the female guest vocalist Ruth Moody, this tune just can’t leave anyone indifferent to Mark’s solo work as far as I’m concerned. This spectacular composition showcases how good Mark’s voice actually is, and how great it sounds in the duet with someone whose voice is equally beautiful, deep and warm; not to mention the magnificent saxophone solos. I feel like I can listen to this song for ages, it’s one of the best album closers Mark has ever done.
Tracker doesn’t offer some kind of amazing and unexpected diversity to the listener. Mark Knopfler developed his style with those eight solo albums, and has been staying in his comfort zone ever since, so why the ninth album should be even different? It’s only expected it won’t be different. Luckily, Mark’s musical comfort zone is just so outstanding and appealing to me I couldn’t wish for anything else. In the light of all this power and progressive metal I’m listening to, this album is a welcome breath of fresh air. I recommend listening to this album in the evening or at sunset, especially when you’re in contemplative, melancholic mood. It won’t blow your mind or anything like that, but if you’re, like me, a fan of well-produced, folk-ish guitar oriented music with some amazing, memorable melodies, this album will be right up your alley.