Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Channeling

Mark Knopfler
Get Lucky
Mercury Records


At some point enthusiasm crosses the line into something unseemly, into almost a fetish. I feel sheepishly as though I've crossed this line with Mark Knopfler, having put up several gushing reviews of his last few albums. He released a new album a couple months ago, so one can predict what's coming from my end. (Because I don't review much of this kind of music, I've become a bit like the dental hygienist who keeps picking at the same spot over and over until she makes a problem where you didn't think you had one: Mark Knopfler again.)

But something about his approach just resonates with me; he achieves perfection in this particular musical style. Though this genre is not my musical bread and butter, he confirms to me that a high enough degree of competence or genius or inspiration simply overrides the mundanities and generalizations of genre; talent becomes its own reward, its own justification.

On his latest release, Get Lucky, he remains firmly in the same nest he has feathered all along--at least since I've been paying attention, that of acoustic folk-rock with essential instrumentation and a few well-chosen spices. These last four solo albums--The Ragpicker's Dream, Shangri-La, Kill to Get Crimson and Get Lucky--all sound as though they might have been recorded in the same recording session (with the next earlier album, Sailing to Philadelphia not far off this path). The differences between these releases are subtle, both in thematic material and in presentation. But that's quite all right; his is a mature artistry, and he's concerned to do what he does with exquisite attention to detail and not with trying a splash in someone else's pool.

Knopfler is renowned as a guitarist, of course, from his Dire Straits days and onward. He has perfected a distinct clawhammer / fingerpicking style, a whole-instrument approach that enables him to play pretty much anything. On these solo albums, his guitar has a quietly authoritative presence, his artistry not needing too much of the spotlight to make itself known. He alternates between quietly contrapuntal backgrounds and these wonderfully lyrical melodic treatments, both electric and acoustic--it makes one want to take up the instrument, his effortlessness almost convincing you that playing a guitar just couldn't be that hard. He is not a virtuoso as a singer, with a grumbling hang-dog voice that's more mumble than song; but it's the perfect instrument for telling a story, and his pitch and phrasing are delicious.

That storyteller's voice is key to the synergy of his songwriting approach: solidly affecting, singable melodies with a basic rock and roll background, and some usually haunting image / theme tying it all together. While this stylistic approach is fairly steady, the stories themselves cover a lot of ground: A man operating a locomotive, Homage to a mandolin maker, the remembrance of friends gone, the occasional love story. A nostalgia buff after my own heart, he's found a really haunting folk-sounding melody for the song Before Gas and TV, a look back at a simpler time that's just about gone from public consciousness.

Knopfler shows some of his influences here, with several songs paying musical homage to other artists of the singer / songwriter genre. One of my favorites here, So Far From the Clyde, chronicles a ship on its final journey being intentionally run aground for scrapping--a song with more than a passing resemblance to Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. How deliciously he sets the tone:

They had a last supper
 the day of the beaching

She's a dead ship sailing
- skeleton crew

The galley is empty, 
the stove pots are cooling

With what's left of a stew
Her time is approaching, t
he captain moves over

The hangman steps in
to do what he's paid for

With the wind and the tide 
she goes proud ahead steaming

And he drives her hard into the shore

The title track, Get Lucky, with its lovely whistle solo, channels Simon & Garfunkel's The Boxer (my favorite song of theirs), in a gentler form, a kind of Boxer Lite.

The album's final track, Piper to the End--yet another haunting and infectious tune--begins with a statement of musical theme on whistle and violin and concertina, a theme that sounds like it's been rattling around the highlands for a couple hundred years. (I'm assuming, though I don't know, that it's not an old melody.) But it has an intriguing twist. I've had pieces of music over the years which lodged themselves in my mind in a certain way, and I later learned that I had the counting or phrasing of a section of the piece wrong--it had gelled in my mind with the wrong orientation. Later, when I see sheet music or hear a live version I realize the error of my ways and what I "know" of the song changes too. And this theme, in Piper to the End, makes its appearance seeming to be one way, when in fact the bar lines are two counts off from what one initially hears. The notes are all the same, of course, but the phrases begin and end at different points than where instinct tells us they do, kind of like an Escher painting that flops between this and that. The song lopes along with occasional odd phrasing details, hinting at something. When the drums come in about halfway through the song, a little nudge is given to emphasize these bar lines, as if they know that people aren't going to count the phrases right without a little help. It's a subtle thing, but it changes the nature of the musical statement just a bit--maybe an analogy is how a spoken phrase can change its meaning depending on what words are emphasized. Well, you can't make a song out of that detail, and maybe it's a trick my mind plays on me that others will not experience (though I expect not). And the unexpected phrases, coupled with this bone-marrow melody, make for a very satisfying experience.

And it's an example of Knopfler's genius: he is not concerned to make a bold statement or to blaze new trails or to pander to the masses. This is another quiet effort, but one which stands up to repeated listenings and continues to yield satisfying little details. And that's right up my alley.


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