Except for their swell debut hit single, “Sultans of Swing,” in 1979, the British band Dire Straits has never come as much of a surprise. And, then, what caught you off guard was how much the singer sounded like Dylan. Brothers in Arms, their first studio album since Love over Gold three years ago, offers more of their winsomely rocking tunes. The band is augmented by bassist Tony Levin, Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim, a horn section, which includes the Brecker Brothers, and some thirteen different keyboards that are used to explore orchestral textures. Carefully crafted instead of raucous, pretty rather than booming, and occasionally affecting, the record is beautifully produced, with Mark Knopfler’s terrific guitar work catching the best light. The lyrics are literate, but the scenarios aren’t as interesting as they used to be on records like Making Movies, still the band’s most solid LP.
Side one has the most driving songs: the bouncy “Walk of Life,” a Fifties rock & roll song about cool Fifties rock & roll songs that features a cheesy organ sound, and “So Far Away,” a missive from a distant town, with a catchy bass line rumbling underneath it. After a grandiose introduction, “Money for Nothing” shows what a guy who moves refrigerators for a living thinks of the rock stars on MTV. “See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup/Yeah buddy that’s his own hair/That little faggot got his own jet airplane/That little faggot he’s a millionaire,” the guy mutters, while Knopfler’s guitar grinds out his irritation. The guitar turns delicate for the gentle “Why Worry,” a song that’s as soft as a sigh.
Side two, made up of four songs about men and war, is more ambitious and less successful. Knopfler practically whispers the lyric to “Brothers in Arms” but never turns out images that catch your eye; the music’s lovely, though, with the electric guitar cutting patterns in a soft-toned background. But no telling metaphors are found in this quartet of songs, and the music lacks the ache that made Knopfler’s recent soundtracks for Comfort and Joy and Cal so powerful.