Richard Ford's Tracker sleeve notes (Revised March, 2017)
Over breakfast a few years ago, I rather pridefully revealed to Mark Knopfler that a well-known Louisiana country-singer whom I admired had invited me to write some songs with him. For a novelist, this was kind of the ultimate. Novels are one ponderous thing; but to write lithesome songs people would hear on Sirius radio, tune into via their ear-buds while sweating the stairmaster, or sing along with, holding lighted candles in oceanic stadiums across the globe – this was the big time. I was fired up. Any advice, Knopfler might give me, I wondered over our eggs, sausage ‘n sour coffee? “If I were you,” he said, wintry blue eyes roaming out toward the harbor in the little Maine sea-side town where I live, “If I were you,I think I’d stick to novels.”
I took it well.
Over the decade since then – with much time spent listening to the music Knopfler has made in his 40+ year career – right up to the present, dazzlingly Knopfler-ish songs in Tracker, I’ve wondered what makes it so hard to write a good song? Pop song. Rock ‘n roll anthem. You name it. So hard, in fact, that I shouldn’t even bother. And what makes Knopfler’s own songs so compelling and musically singular? “I can use so few words to write a song,” he’d said to me that bleak November morning in Maine. As if this made everything perfectly clear. It didn’t. Dante could’ve said the same things about The Inferno.
The Mark Knopfler song book since the Dire Straits years is literally and pleasingly all over the map. And yet as with Tracker, it is without any sense of any album being a miscellany – of being merely the next thing Mark Knopfler comes up with. Cohesion seems instinctual to him both as a writer and a guitar player. He has his subjects, as any lucky writer will – youth and aging (often his own), the working grind, the demi-monde, the louche, the wandering life of the road, women and love, history, literature, the north of England, various weird Geordie issues. All of these preoccupations get fused into Knopfler’ssongs – into their melodies, stories (always stories), settings, characters, dictions, breathtaking guitar virtuosities burning hot from within – coming round always to being about grace; real-time, minor key, on-the-ground grace. Seeking it, and frequently not finding it.
A Mark Knopfler song – several in Tracker fit this bill – is often not so different from a classic short story. In a short story, lives, places, human urges, dictions that don’t customarily fit together – often in fact are seemingly alien to one another – become forged into a union by writerly audacity and imagination, following which something bright and new emerges. Ruskin wrote that composition is the arrangement of unequal things. And Knopfler’s compositions, full of musical and narratively divergent details, are frequently as formally complex and illuminating as a short story will ever get. Yes, okay, partly this is because there are so few words with which to imagine a whole world. But also it’s because Knopfler comes to his task with so many assets requiring to be unified.
A Knopfler song is often fashioned of premises and formal parts that seem far from inevitable. Take for instance a sprightly, jauntily-paced, but decidedly ominous number about getting your bones busted up in a boxing ring – “Broken Bones.” Or consider a seemingly-from-out-of-nowhere, bio-snapshot of the poet Basil Bunting, ruefully writing copy for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, when he’d rather be writing poems. Or have a listen to the even less expectable, up-tempo apologia to the insufficiently-celebrated life of the English novelist Beryl Bainbridge.
As with a great story, intelligence and thrill come from the genius (Knopfler’s) that these rambunctious bits can make a whole story – indeed, make a song, which then becomes (using, of course, just a few words) the crucible for the melding of its disparate musical and narratively mosaical particulars. All of this, it can’t not be said, superintended by Knopfler’s husky, time-softened baritone, which – to my ear – as much as interpreting his own compositions, operates alongside them as a vouchsafe, a mediator between words and music, a personification of longing itself.
And not that these songs in Tracker are literary or themed or requiring of explanation of their internal formalities. This is rock ‘n roll – albeit of a rather unique sort. Much of what you hear in Tracker is music and lyrics so nicely, harmoniously “fitted” that they seem cast in one stroke. There’s rarely the sensation that lyrics and melody have ever been in conflict or even dictated much to the other. The songs manage to affect us richly as being both “made” and (to use a forbidden word) organic at once. Listen to the rollicking, race-course-vagabond song, “Skydiver,” or the melancholy “Mighty Man,” a ditch-digger’s lament to his son. Or the love songs – “Long Cool Girl,” and Knopfler’s pitch-perfect duet with the celestially-voiced Ruth Moody, of the Canadian Wailin’ Jennys. There’s not a musical hair out of place.
I know that what I’m saying gives short shrift to the pure musicality of all this – notably to Knopfler’s vivid but understated guitar presence throughout, and to what have become his recent infusions of Celtic hues and instruments: fiddles, pipes, whistles, a cittern, accordion, mandolin; plus a washboard, a snare, a ukulele, an organ, various horns, all in the mix with Guy Fletcher’s superb keyboards and Glenn Worf’s incomparable bass. One has the feeling, listening to Tracker, with its collation of musical motifs, instrumentation and sharp formal elements, its unexpected narrative tours, its grainy sources in life, its intimacies and nervy conjunctions – that in this project here is Mark Knopfler getting himself fully-expressed, putting in play everything he knows to be good. And not as a means of self-revelation – Tracker seems, in fact, as personally diffident as any Knopfler composition I remember – but rather as a means of achieving music at its height, for others: renewing our sensuous and emotional purchase on existence, and fashioning for us a wider, more appreciative, awareness of life as lived. There’s not much greater grace on earth than that.
- Richard Ford