A Retrospective Review of Mark Knopfler, Tracker
Tracker, Mark Knopfler’s 8th solo album, is equal parts audio autobiography, lyrical oral history, and rapturous musical appreciation. As it was being recorded and released, Mark crossed that numerically freighted threshold of 65 (born in August 1949, a Leo). One only wishes that all senior citizens had such staying power, without attempting to deny their age or accumulated decades of memory by acting as if they were a contemporary of Taylor Swift.
The album cover art, photographed by Mark’s longtime wife and partner, Kitty Aldridge, captures the mood here nicely. Mark stands with an acoustic guitar (probably his Gibson Southern jumbo) in the middle of a plowed wheat field golden in late fall harvest. The sky is vast and blue with cumulous clouds on the horizon and powerlines running along a tree-lined road in the distance. If you didn’t know who you were looking at, the man in jeans and black tee shirt could be anyone – maybe even your grandfather. That’s the point, I guess: Mark as everyman in a landscape that could almost be anywhere.
Inside the liner notes, you’ll find a superb (if somewhat self-serving) essay on Mark and his musical style by Richard Ford, who laments the fact that he – a famous novelist – can’t write song lyrics like Mark. Richard then devotes seven additional, extremely wordy paragraphs to praise Mark’s songwriting in ways that would make almost anyone of modest personality blush with embarrassed pride. Richard’s essay contains almost as many words as the entire 11 tracks on the album. If you can tolerate his florid prose, it’s worth reading in its entirety. Say what you will about Richard’s skills as a writer, he definitely loves what Mark does, and it shows.
Songwise, the album covers a lot of territory than non-UK citizens may not easily recognize, such as the poet Basil Bunting and writer Beryl Bainbridge, and references to kissing “a Gateshead girl” will pass them by on first or second listening. And who’s been to Taormina unless you have Sicilian relatives, lots of money, or regularly read the NYTimes travel section? Vintage motorcycle riders may get what makes the song, “Silver Eagle” so special, but Prius drivers may not (hint: the Cushman Eagle was a glorified scooter that appealed to younger riders who couldn’t afford the real deal and that is now considered a cult classic). It may take time to realize that “Mighty Man” is about a roadway worker in 1950s Britain – and that one should never – ever – attempt to dance around a taproom with a chair in their teeth. Not even an IKEA one, unless dental hygiene isn’t high on one’s priority list.
Especially in Mark’s albums released since 2000, the supporting cast vocalists and musicians are often astoundingly good. Here, Ruth Moody is melodically marvelous on several tracks, as is saxophone player, Nigel Hitchcock, while trumpeter Matt Walsh, who also appears on Mark’s 2018 album, Down the Road Wherever, delivers a beautiful performance to “Wherever I Go,” a pitch perfect duet love song for the genuinely pure of heart. Rarely does an album of this caliber end so gently, like a doting father laying a young daughter carefully in her bed to rest. For his musical mastery and enigmatic allure, Mark at his best can be like that, sometimes. Here’s to the everyman and everywoman in us all, and to the simple things in life that ultimately matter the most, like great music.