Mark Knopfler first emerged as the vocalist/guitarist for the legendary British Rock-n-Roll band Dire Straits. A talented singer-songwriter, while he quickly expanded his workload to include film soundtracks, he chose not to record a proper solo album until Dire Straits closed shop. Now, all these years later, comes his ninth solo album, Down The Road Wherever, scheduled for release November 16th through vanity label British Grove Records (named after his London studio), with assistance from Universal/Virgin EMI.
For those whom do not remember, Dire Straits formed in 1970s Loughton, outside London, featuring Mark Knopfler’s brother David also on guitar, the brothers’ roommate John Illsley on bass guitar, and Pick Withers on drums. Several lineup changes and six acclaimed albums followed—from their 1978 self-titled debut, through the breakthrough 1985 album Brothers in Arms, and eventually culminating in 1991 with On Every Street. A handful of live releases followed, after which Mark—his brother David having departed more than a decade earlier—shuttered the band to focus on a solo career.
The soundtrack work had started with Local Hero in 1983, soon spread to the 1987 timeless favorite The Princess Bride, and, in his spare time, he recorded Neck and Neck with Chet Atkins, released in 1990. Although, 1996’s Golden Heart was his first true solo work. Sophomore effort Sailing to Philadelphia followed in 2000, and from this point on, new work averaged between two and three years from that point on through his 2015 album, Tracker.
Which leads us to present day with Down The Road Wherever. Obvious imagery aside, the album is another meandering journey from Knopfer, with musical escapades moving from the open range of the American West or Australian outback, to urban dance parties, to Honky-Tonk bars, all peppered with his trademark wit and languid vocal delivery. Knopfler is able to shift from the wealds of his youth into a smooth mixture of Rock and Country lifted from mid-twentieth century America; he has described this crossroads as “where the Delta meets the Tyne.”
The first single, “Good On You Son” was the first single off the new record. Accompanied by a music video, it starts with Knopfler speeding by on a motorcycle—a favorite pastime, despite a scary accident—interspersed with images from studio recordings, the shuffle of preparing for various live gigs, including Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Orpheum in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Palace in Albany, New York, replete with gratuitous images of Wegmans products stashed backstage. The video also pans to include some shots of Newcastle, his childhood home. Follow-up single “Back On The Dance Floor” has some decidedly outlaw western themes, but the accompaniment is almost a brazen Jazz vibe.
Later on, “One Song At a Time” gives the album its title, and also calls to mind a quote from Knopfler’s friend Chet Atkins, who used to say he was singing his way out of poverty “one song at a time;” the trip taken in the lyrics here nods to the literal dire straits that surrounded the now-legendary band’s formative years. Then the fifties vibe of “Heavy Up” is a bit of an in-joke with Knopfler, who once traded an idea with a friend that he (Knopfler) would “lighten up” if the others would meet halfway and, well, “heavy up;” the song is decidedly upbeat, as if Knopfler is already taking care of his half of the bargain. This is while “Nobody’s Child” is a soft ballad, driven largely by Knopfler on guitar and some bonafide “vocals,” albeit sparse, to go along with his normal spoken drawl. “When You Leave” is similarly thin and barren, starting with soft, somber trumpet, before moving into slow, cumbersome guitar and piano.
Additionally, “Nobody Does That” has a funky, Stevie Wonder sort of Motown flavor, while “Drovers’ Road” brings back the stern, workmanlike approach that draws some of the focus of the writing. The awkward walk of “Just A Boy Away From Home” marks the only track which Knopfler did not completely pen himself; instead, he extends writing credits to the fabled writing pair Rodgers and Hammerstein, as the song admittedly lifts a piece “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as it shares the story of a lost Liverpool soccer fan (who are known to sing that famous song), wandering the home grounds of Newcastle, still earnest in his support despite his surroundings. (Knopfler’s childhood team, Newcastle United, play “Going Home” from Local Hero before home matches).
The closer, “Matchstick Men,” is the shortest track in the collection, ticking just shy of three minutes and leaving the listener with the sounds of Knopfler plucking an acoustic guitar, singing in the simple way that seemingly only he can. The song is just long enough to paint the image of a young, hitchhiking Knopfler, early Christmas Day, hitchhiking home from a gig, nothing but a speck in the wintry distance, embarking on his musical career.
All in all, he may have felt that small at the start, and may even have been at peace with that fate, but Down The Road Wherever shows forty years later, Mark Knopfler can still pen a winding, catchy tune, backed either by thinly guitar or the force of a Marshall stack. The path gets a little muddy at times, and a handful of the songs here could stand to have a verse or two shaved off, but at this point in his career, Knopfler knows his fans, and they know him, and this album will bring in some new faces as well. That is why Cryptic Rock is pleased to give Down The Road Wherever 4 out of 5 stars.