Despite the obvious pedigree of former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, few could have expected his seventh solo effort, 2012’s double album Privateering, to be quite the success it was. The double album has always been a troublesome idea and one that rarely works, but Knopfler’s two discs were remarkably consistent and captured the world-weary sound of Americana perfectly.
The record, which was widely praised by critics and reached Number 8 in the UK album charts, demonstrated ambition and saw Knopfler take a risk that, frankly, he did not need to take at this stage of his career. Almost three years on from Privateering – and after extensively touring the record – the 65-year-old is back with his eighth studio effort, Tracker, which features a much more standard 11 songs.
Yet while Knopfler’s latest record arrives in a less experimental format, the concept behind the record is certainly an interesting one. “The album title ‘Tracker’ arrived out of me trying to find my way over the decades,” explained Knopfler, ahead of the album’s release. “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.”
Like Privateering, there is a sweeping feeling of nostalgia running throughout Tracker, as Knopfler draws on characters and situations that he has encountered over the years. A prime example of this is Basil, where he recounts his meeting with the poet Basil Bunting, who he ran into when he was a teenage copy boy working on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. His poignant vocals are easy to get lost in, as he remembers the period over a wondering guitar melody.
The first single, Beryl, also follows this central theme of Tracker. Knopfler sings about Beryl Bainbridge, a famous British novelist who was most prolific from around the early 1970s to the mid 1980s. Despite being frequently nominated for the Booker Prize, she did not receive one until after her death in 2010 and the song sees Knopfler reflect on what a tragedy this was, singing: “Every time they’d overlook her/ when they gave her a Booker/ she was dead in her grave/ after all she gave.”
There is real sadness in his delivery of “it’s all too late now”, despite the song itself having one of the most upbeat guitar hooks on the record. Album opener, Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes, is another song positively swimming in nostalgia, as Knopfler croons over a languid guitar melody and shuffling drums: “We were young, so young/ and always broke/ not that we ever cared.”
While the theme of time does unify the record, it does verge on becoming repetitive as Tracker continues. This distinct lack of impetus results in tracks such as River Towns, with its delicately scratched guitar chords and monotonous beat, and the meandering Long Call Girl being solid, but ultimately forgettable numbers. The same can be said of Lights Of Taormina, which completes the bogged down and lengthy middle section.
That said, when Knopfler gets it right he is still a joy to listen to and, on Tracker, he is mostly successful. His character tales remain as captivating as ever, while his signature electric guitar fills are a significant part of what make songs like Skydiver and Mighty Man work so well. There are also a few surprises, most notably in the beautiful closer Wherever I Go, where he duets with Ruth Moody, from Canadian roots trio the Wailin’ Jennys.
It is this ability to keep on adding new layers to his already multifaceted sound that confirms Knopfler’s continuing brilliance. Tracker may not quite reach the same heights as its predecessor – it features one too many misses for that to be the case – but it is another solid solo entry into his already impressive back catalogue and a record that Knopfler’s faithful following will undoubtedly delight in it.