Mark Knopfler,
The Ragpicker's Dream
(Warner Bros., 2002)

It is anyone's guess as to whether the former Dire Straits crooner and guitarist still gets "chicks for free," but The Ragpicker's Dream, the third of three brilliant solo albums released in the wake of Mark Knopfler's former band, proves that he doesn't get "money for nothin'." Despite the speckles of genius Knopfler bestowed upon the music world with Dire Straits, the gritty, stylish honesty of recent solo albums such as Golden Heart, Sailing to Philadelphia and his latest release suggest that his old band's demise was a fortuitous event for music. The break-up facilitated Knopfler's much-needed escape from the glaring spotlight under which he was cast after the monumentally successful Brothers in Arms. Never has Knopfler demonstrated such eagerness to explore more varied musical terrain as on the solo albums that ensued, from the fluttering fiddles and bagpipes of Golden Heart to the impassioned acoustic blues of Ragpicker's Dream.

Most fans came to expect a certain sound from Dire Straits: the instantly captivating guitar licks and shuffling rhythm of "Money For Nothing" or "Sultans of Swing," the chiming organ of "Walk of Life," or the jangling hooks of "So Far Away." However, the Dire Straits oeuvre is a rather inconsistent one, including only a couple albums of sustained energy and a host of lesser collections ranging from decent to dismal. The conventional boundaries that confined Dire Straits ultimately became so exhausted that the band had nowhere left to turn. On Every Street, the band's 1991 farewell album, showcased Knopfler's increasing enthusiasm for, among other sounds, the twang and wail of Nashville, playing with country legend Chet Atkins as well as the Notting Hillbillies. The days of MTV videos and duets with Sting were clearly a thing of the distant past. Any further projects with Dire Straits would only have typecast a talent whose borders stretch well beyond rock 'n' roll's tired roads.

When not recording solo, Knopfler is lending a hand on projects by performers as artistically opposed to his pop-rock past as Waylon Jennings, whose final album, Closing in on the Fire, features a ballad to which Knopfler contributes a guitar solo. On his own work, though, such nods to Nashville are becoming more average than anomalous, particularly on his latest outing, speckled with everything from rock to ragtime. The album's track list, including titles like "Daddy's Gone to Nashville" and "Hillfarmer's Blues," reads more like a list of lost songs by Dock Boggs, the late Appalachian banjo-master. While some of the songs on Ragpicker's Dream might have gotten Boggs's toe tapping, though, Knopfler's homage to J.J Cale remains evident. Brooding, slick guitar solos emerge throughout the album, from the frenetic licks of the sprawling opener and single, "Way Aye Man" to more languid, bluesy tunes such as the title track.

It is the album's innovative production, however, that proves it a necessary conclusion to Knopfler's solo trilogy. Compared to the somewhat bland, spare arrangements of his previous album, the flavorful production serves as a refreshing taste of Knopfler's endless musical dexterity. Sprightly and deeply textured, the soundscapes of songs like "You Don't Know Your Bones" and "Coyote" teem with bass, flickering drum beats, horns, percussion and Knopfler's sly guitar. Hearing the result is like getting lost in the middle of a feral jungle at night. Knopfler's production is crisp, clear and variegated, making for a potpourri of songs that are at once spare and abundantly rich, as the haunting, folkish "Fare Thee Well Northumberland" gives way to "Daddy's Gone to Nashville," a blithe and thoroughly convincing tribute to Hank Williams.

A consistent thrust of melody renders this Knopfler's most gorgeous and tactful project to date. The sudden, snapping drums that guide "Hill Farmer's Blues" to its fading crescendo raise the song's beauty to an ethereal pitch, while "Devil Baby" delivers a steady pathos accompanied by an insouciant musical backdrop and Knopfler's earthy, dust-caked vocals. "It's hard to find love anywhere/hard to find love anywhere," he laments on one of the album's many moving ballads. With the onslaught of gaudy, vapid and overproduced pop singles cluttering today's airwaves, Knopfler's enduring commitment to raw, honest and rootsy music is nothing short of a miracle. While it may very well be hard to find love anywhere, albums like The Ragpicker's Dream guarantee the love of those who feel alienated by the fluff that passes for "rock" in an industry becoming more subversive and superficial by the hour.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 15 March 2003

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