Album Review

Mark Knopfler - The Ragpicker's Dream

Mark Knopfler - The Ragpicker's Dream

Mark Knopfler's often beautiful and affecting third solo album is about exile. It's not about the exile forced by war or famine, but by the natural progression of ordinary life. "Why Aye Man", the opening tune, could have anchored a good early Dire Straits album. It's a landlubber's shanty about the emigration of blue-collar workers from Britain to Germany during the Thatcher years: "There's plenty Deutschmarks here to earn/And German tarts are wunderschoen," he sings with unlikely breezyness. "Fare Thee Well Northumberland", like "Why Aye Man", uses the River Tyne in Northern Britain as a touchstone for which to be yearned. Beneath the solid groove of Knopfler's (mostly acoustic) guitar playing, there's an underlying playfulness, with gurgling harmonica riffs and piano notes plinked toy-like from the highest end of the keyboard. "A Place Where We Used To Live" suggests exile from childhood, its sentimentality leavened by a melody that could have come from Jobim. He embraces pop culture in the sardonic "Devil Baby", in which Jerry Springer, if not exactly a stand-in for Lucifer, is compared to the barker of a low-level carnival freakshow. Not especially original, but searingly effective. And "Coyote" would seem to be not a metaphor for the remote but dangerous wilderness, but as the too-fast-for-his-own-good nemesis of the Roadrunner. (It is a corporately correct metaphor, as Knopfler and Wil E. Coyote are both entertainers who work for divisions of AOL-Time Warner.) Lyrically, this is Knopfler's most penetrating album. "You Don't Know You're Born" is sung to someone who doesn't understand the concept of sacrifice, either through physical labor or spiritual surrender. "Marbletown", a steady rollin' railroad blues, offers this advice to the itinerant hobo: A cemetery can be a very comfortable place to relax between hopped trains. And "Quality Shoe", sung with tongue deeply in cheek, makes one visualize Fred Astaire dancing in a Dr. Martens commercial sung to the melody of Roger Miller's "King Of The Road". There's no need for showy musicianship on this song-oriented record; the tunes are played as Knopfler says he wrote them, on a flat-top Martin guitar. What emerges once again, from a man who has occasionally seemed distracted by soundtracks, is the blend of lyrical ingenuity and musical dexterity that makes Knopfler one of the most appealing and insightful Anglo-American roots musicians of his generation.