Friday, April 11, 2008
Wisdom and Experience
The Ragpicker's Dream
Mercury Records, 2002
Occasionally I'm surprised to go through my music collection and find myself with a bunch more individual performances of a single piece of music than I realized I had. Though I do have something of the collector in me, I only find myself drawn to collect in this way when I care deeply about the repertoire (as an example, I have but two versions of Beethoven's Symphonies--modern orchestra and period performance--because it's just not music I care much for; whereas I find myself with some 40 copies of Duruflé's organ music--virtually every performance I have ever come across). I think this is because, consciously or unconsciously, I'm searching for sublimity, for the ideal performance of works I know well.
As I have listened over the decades, I seem to have developed barely-subconscious mental musical templates, ideal specimens of varying genres that are just out of my reach but which influence my take of almost anything I hear. How I respond to a recording or performance will correlate directly to how closely the artist comes to these mental templates (how much of this is just an assembly of all the preferred details of these varied recordings I've heard and how much is of my own genesis I cannot say). Much more rarely a performer will either present me with an entirely new template or radically retool an existing one. People listen in different ways, I know; and I don't think that my interface with music is better or move valid than someone else's. But I think we're all influenced by everything we're exposed to, either in music or literature or film or art or ideas, and this seems like a rough model of how things work for me.
I've come over the past few months to regard Mark Knopfler as one of my standard-bearers for songwriting and acoustic folk-rock performance. Though I knew of him via a passing familiarity with Dire Straits, it was only when I stumbled upon his 2007 solo release Kill to Get Crimson that I really began paying attention. That deeply satisfying release led me back to his previous, 2004's Shangri-La, which continued in the same vein of evocative and laconic lyrics and very tasty, no-mindless-theatrical-pyrotechnical-bullshit playing by a small group of very competent musicians. I gravitate again and again to these CDs, finding in them a brilliant condensation of the songwriter's art, the essence of a troubador's craft with a light coating of period style. This is simply as good to my mind as this genre of writing gets.
Naturally, until he offers another new record, I'm compelled to go further and further back in his catalog. This time it's his release from 2000, The Ragpicker's Dream. And again we find Mr. Knopfler immersed in his personal vein, though I daresay in tiny increments over the half decade from Ragpicker to Crimson he has become even quieter and more contemplative. But it's the same great musical mind throughout, mature and settled, and the stylistic continuity could have these three albums stand as a trilogy. Speaking of style, though his instrumentation and essential approach are settled, he still covers a pretty broad range. Ragpicker ranges from the deliciously quiet, almost grief-stricken The Place Where We Used to Live, to Quality Shoe, which sounds like it was tapped directly from an airing of A Prairie Home Companion.
Lyrically, he has a wonderful ability to find the perfect few words that evoke a whole scene, to tell a three-dimensional story with just a few key points. And he delivers these lyrics so gently, with a cross between a whisper and a mumble, that the story threatens to go right past unless a little attention is paid. I love this, that attention and repeat listenings yield treat after treat; in lyrics, sure, but also (some might say especially) in his exquisite guitar playing. He simply never overplays--which seems the ultimate expression of confidence--and has a conspicuous talent for making less into much more. Again, all this brings us back to essentials.
There is (I might as well finish my hyperbolic gush) something of the beau ideal in this presentation, a quiet, deeply masculine voice singing songs of penetrating vision and sensitivity. Though he looks like a plumber, there is a distinct sex appeal here; there's something quintessentially male about him. For once I seem to have come across an unequivocal man who does not shame my sex, one that maybe even raises the average for the rest of us a little.