Over the course of a musical career spanning more than five full decades, Mark Knopfler has learned to do three things extremely well. He has become a master storyteller, due in no small part to his early years as a newspaper reporter, English major, and lifelong lover of history. He became a virtuoso guitar player by mixing and matching a dizzying array of musical styles and techniques until his own distinctive and utterly unique sound emerged – explosively at first and then, gradually, in a process of sonic evolution that lasted through middle age and beyond. And third, he found ways to work with some of the world’s best musical talents on tour and in studio to craft soulful, bluesy, toe-tapping, and emotionally moving melodies that at their best become almost incantatory, trancelike, and quietly hypnotic. Some of his most popular songs strike quick and fast like lighting, but the majority of the hundreds in his voluminous songbook seep into your skin more slowly, after multiple listenings, in front of open fires, while driving lonely 2-lane highways in Nevada, or while sipping a glass of whiskey with a passel of really fine mates. If you put it all together, you have the makings of a musical legend who lives on through his music, even as he prepares to turn 70 later this year.
Down the Road Wherever may well be Mark’s last solo album, and likely his final world concert tour. The songs have a syncretic cadence to them, with bursts and fits of frenzy but mainly a long, slow, and satisfying burn. He doesn’t need to revisit the guitar heights of Brothers in Arms or the story-telling genius of Sailing to Philadelphia anymore. Been there, done that. What stands out in this unassumingly awesome album is the “Mark & Friends” melodic majesty, fitting for a man who has been inducted into the Order of the British Empire and granted membership in the elite London’s gentlemen’s organization, the Garrick Club. It sounds so amazingly good, you will want to pop open a bottle of Santa Rita Hills Pinot and offer a toast to the musical talents who put it all together with what seems virtually no effort at all. It is smooth, lingering, and meditative. “Tunnel of Love” or “Roller Girl” these songs most definitely are not. No harm meant to those phenomenal songs, but the ones here are deeper, denser, and ultimately even better. Play them a few times, and you may just agree.
If you enjoyed songs like “Basil,” Beryl,” “Mighty Man,” and “Lights of Taormina” from Mark’s earlier album, Tracker, or loved the slightly mysterious lyrics to “5:15am,” “Back to Tupelo,” or “Don’t Crash the Ambulance,” from the immensely entertaining album, Shangri-La, or if songs like “Seattle,” “Haul Away,” “Kingdom of Gold,” or “Redbud Tree” from the 2-disc compilation, Privateering, get stuck in your head, you should find the Gesamtkunstwerk of Down the Road Wherever to your liking. There isn’t a single smash song here, just a slow build up of audio accomplishment. If there is a showpiece track, it probably is #9 (“One Song at a Time”), which has the sort of autobiographical coloration, critical sense of history (references to the English slave trade and public hangings), and musical flashes of brilliance (guitar, fiddle, low whistle and wooden flute) that are Knopfler’s current trademarks
“Slow Learner” is the sneakily great song on the album, if you give its understated vocals and haunting instrumentals time to sink in – especially the trumpet bit, which for some reason is uncredited on the liner notes – could it a guest appearance by Chris Botti, I wonder? Likely not, as it sounds like the same musician who ends track#5 (“When You Leave”) with another pitch-perfect trumpet bit, but there isn’t credit given for this in the liner notes, either. Tom Walsh, who plays trumpet on several other tracks, isn’t listed on track #11, but this could be a typo where the track numbers are mixed up. Track #12 clearly has back up vocals and a trombone part, not track #13, as indicated. Track #13 (“Matchstick Man”), with its spare acoustic guitar and wavering male vocal solo that raises unanswered questions about hitchhiker’s place in the universe amidst the dawn of a cold, snow-covered Christmas morning, is the perfect ending track, closing one chapter yet somehow leaving space for another to begin.
In between all these tremendous signature tracks, there are lots of catchy guitar riffs and some flashes of humor, loads of introspection, top-notch backup vocals, excellent keyboards, percussion, woodwinds, and brass, and Mark’s trademark deftness of touch with both words and notes. Turning 70 doesn’t mean you check your childhood or early adulthood at the door. OBEs can still reminisce about being down on their luck drifters, and making lots of money doing something you love isn’t anything to fret about, either.
Just ask Bruce Springsteen, whose own recent album, Western Stars, would make a nice companion piece to “Down the Road Wherever.” Bruce, by the way, was also born in 1949, like Mark, about 6 weeks later. Mark is a Leo, while Bruce is a Libra. Leos are strong forces to be reckoned with, emotional people who seem to capture the attention of others. Libras, for all of their many gifts, have a hard time remaining humble and uncomplaining and tend to be overly concerned with appearances and image. Trust me, I am no astrologist, but in the case of these two magnificent male musicians and icons of late twentieth century rock, these descriptions do somehow kind of fit, don’t they?