Mark Knopfler, Tracker (2015, Mercury Records)
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Sometimes an album’s lead single signals the direction of a record, and sometimes it’s a head fake. “Beryl,” the first single from Mark Knopfler’s current release, Tracker, is a head fake. If there’s a concept buried in the 11 tracks (the deluxe edition has 15), it’s a look back at Knopfler’s musical influences through his various stylistic periods. “Beryl” is the one and only nod to Dire Straits, while “Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes” riff on Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” gives way to a more ordered Celtic style as the main melody over the 5/4 time signature. “Basil” is a laconic number, but lyrically Knopfler is less a poet and more a prose writer who employs more than a few novelistic flourishes. “River Towns” continues the slow ride with a meditative style that’s close to being soporific.
Thankfully, Knopfler kicks the tempo (and the playfulness) up a notch with “Skydiver,” only to slow it down it again with “Mighty Man. The porpoise-like ups and downs of the tempo makes Tracker a rather sedate album that never rises to the level of full on rock. There’s some mean guitar work on “Broken Bones” that fuses blues and rock, but the mid-tempo rhythm locks it into a beat that doesn’t vary. Indeed, the three songs that come after “Mighty Man” — “Broken Bones,” “Long Cool Girl,” and Lights of Taormina” — are all of a kind. Indeed, this trifecta of sluggishness threatens to lull listeners into coma. Thankfully, we get resurrected with the album’s only wake-up cup on “Beryl.” “Wherever I go” with Ruth Moody is quite a lovely ballad that harkens back to Knopfler’s duet album with Emmylou Harris – though Moody’s voice is a better counterpoint to Knopfler’s than Harris. “.38 Special,” “My Heart Has Never Changed,” “Terminal of Tribute To,” and “Heart of Oak” are included in the Deluxe Edition, but there are other songs that are part of either a box set or only available in Germany that only super fans will pay more for.
Overall, Tracker is a good effort, but it lacks the punch of variation that made Privateering such a great album. Indeed, if one were to swap out some of the middle ballads with a few of the bonus tracks, it would have given the record a more diverse listening experience. However, setting aside my issues with the ballad-heavy nature of Tracker, I have to say that Knopfler’s voice is in fine shape. Indeed, his characteristic raspy style is less pronounced than it has been in the past, and even though the songs on record tend to be on the gentler side, his voice is very powerful in terms of conveying emotions that range from forlorn to a certain wryness – but always in an understated manner.