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A step forward for an already mature and accomplished artist
on 29 August 2003
Mark Knopfler laid Dire Straits to rest some time after their last, 1992-93 tour which had produced the "On the Night" live album. By that time, he had written several film scores; including one, 1984's "Cal," which was set in Northern Ireland and prominently featured a large dose of Celtic music, after his first film score (1983's "Local Hero") had already been for a movie set in Scotland. He had temporarily gone Missing (Presumed Having a Good Time) with the Notting Hillbillies. He had taken a plunge into the Nashville scene and recorded "Neck & Neck" with country star Chet Atkins (and thus effortlessly added two more Grammies to the one for their 1985 collaboration on "Cosmic Square Dance," and to Dire Straits' 1985-86 awards for "Money for Nothing" and for the "Brothers in Arms" video). His voice had darkened by yet another couple of notches. Last but not least, he had remarried.
The artist who emerged from all this for the production of 1996's "Golden Heart" was, of course, still the guitar whiz who had founded Dire Straits 19 years earlier; as amply demonstrated throughout the album, from the first track ("Darling Pretty"), dedicated to wife Kitty Aldridge, to the closing "Are We in Trouble Now." But in the attempt to, as he said, "just move forward" and "be better," Knopfler also went ways that he would probably not have been able to go with Dire Straits. "Darling Pretty" and even more so, "A Night in Summer Long Ago," explore the musical influences Mark Knopfler first experienced as a kid in Glasgow, featuring a number of renowned Celtic musicians; most notably perhaps Chieftains Derek Bell (harp in "Darling Pretty") and Sean Keane (violin in "A Night in Summer Long Ago"). "Je Suis Desole" and "Done With Bonaparte" add French inflections; dealing, respectively, with an emigrant's hopes upon setting sail for the new world, and the disillusionment and anger of a soldier trapped in the "little corporal's" Russian campaign. "Cannibals" sounds like upbeat rockabilly ... until you listen to the lyrics. By now, Paul Franklin's pedal steel guitar playing was a fixture on Knopfler's records, too: although he was not one of the five guys initially coming together for the production of this album and the following tour (besides Mark Knopfler, "the inevitable" Guy Fletcher, Richard Bennett, Chad Cromwell and Glenn Worf), for lack of a better title dubbed "the 96ers," Franklin's significant contributions quickly earned him the title of an "honorary 96er." Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, Mairtin O'Connor, Steve Nathan, Brendan Croker and a number of other noted artists round up the group of, as always, outstanding musicians Knopfler invited to work with him on "Golden Heart."
As does his music, his lyrics on the album cover the entire breadth of subjects from social and political commentary ("Imelda," "No Can Do," "Vic and Ray," "Don't You Get It," "Cannibals," "Rudiger") to stories about love, hope and war, from ancient times until today ("Darling Pretty," "Golden Heart," "A Night in Summer Long Ago," "I'm the Fool," "Je Suis Desole," "Nobody's Got the Gun," "Done With Bonaparte," "Are We in Trouble Now"). Not all songs are new material: "Rudiger," which reflects on the type of people who try to blunt the loneliness and meaninglessness of their own lives by hunting celebrities for their celebrity status, without truly caring for their work product, was written at the time of John Lennon's assassination, approximately 15 years earlier. Like many other songs on this album, it displays a level of introspection not present in Knopfler's work with Dire Straits. And finally, the man who had once written "Romeo and Juliet" added several more gems to the collection of his love songs; one of which, "A Night in Summer Long Ago," so impressed another musician who had found true love at just about the same time as Knopfler that he dedicated a cover of the song to his own bride on their wedding day and has since repeatedly performed it live (Don Henley).
In all of their configurations over the course of their more-than-decade-long existence, Dire Straits were often labeled as just another name for Mark Knopfler because of that one man's overwhelming influence on the entire band. There never was a question that without Knopfler, the band would not be able to exist; and from their smoky, raw, blues-driven first album to their billion-selling "Brothers in Arms" and 1991's "On Every Street," there was a distinct sound to a Dire Straits record that depended as much on Knopfler's unique and often spectacular style as a guitarist as on his dark, laid-back vocals. Not everybody was therefore happy with his decision to go new ways on his first solo album. But should a prolific writer like him really be blamed for wanting to explore new dimensions? I don't think so. "Golden Heart" is a step forward, not sideways - towards greater maturity and less showmanship, more meditative, musically as excellent as anything ever created by Knopfler, and produced with as much attention to detail. The album would have deserved much more success than it initially had - and if its successor's acclaim would generate more belated attention for this first solo release, too (as I hope it eventually will), that would be more than justified.