The cover photo to Tracker largely sums up Mark Knopfler's view of his own celebrity status. It depicts the guitarist in a field under a (presumably) summer sky. But he is standing so far in the distance as to be indistinguishable from the elements except for one detail. He has his back to the camera.
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There are two clearer shots within the album notes. One looks as if it's from Knopfler's teen years. The other is a performance shot with Bob Dylan during the guitarist's commercial heyday with Dire Straits, which means it's about 30 years old. Pretty telling stuff, eh?
The music within is only modestly more revealing. There are snapshots from younger days, a few quintessentially British remembrances, novel-esque story songs and love reflections both mad and mournful. As for the white-hot finger-picking that bolstered the Dire Straits sound of old, well, all that has caught the last coach out of town.
On Tracker, guitar is used sparingly, along with the keyboards of longtime cohort Guy Fletcher, to orchestrate rather than lead on the album's 11 tunes (which jumps to 15 or 17 songs on various deluxe versions).
All of this probably makes Tracker sound like the work of a rocker who is more than a little long in the tooth. But at 65, Knopfler is something of a master craftsman when it comes to his songs. Tracker might be the most clearly subdued record of his career, but it also sounds like a million bucks — from the mix of Dave Brubeck-like swing and Northumbrian fancy on the youthful memoir Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes that opens the album to the lullaby-like duet Wherever I Go, sung with gorgeously subtle grace alongside Ruth Moody of the Wailin' Jennies, that closes it.
In between are all kinds of exquisitely detailed but heavily understated delights. Broken Bones locks itself into the sort of steadfast blues groove that recalls the finer work of the late Okie song stylist J.J. Cale, while Lights of Taormina fashions a Dylan-esque song structure to a neo-tropical groove. But the Celtic sway of Mighty Man, along with an ode to British poet Basil Bunting (Basil) whose curmudgeonly profile ("too old for the job, bored out of his mind") could be viewed as a parallel to Knopfler's, best typifies Tracker's lean beauty.
Then again, this is in no way a rock 'n' roll album. Those hoping for a reawakening of Dire Straits should wait for another train. Tracker is instead the work of an unapologetically grizzled pop journeyman, joyfully detached from rock stardom, who luxuriates in the construction of a good musical yarn and, even more so, the time it takes to share it.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic