Dire Straits, an English quartet led by singer songwriter Mark Knopfler, plays tight, spare mixtures of rock, folk and country music with a serene spirit and witty irony. It’s almost as if they were aware that their forte has nothing to do with what’s currently happening in the industry, but couldn’t care less.
As a writer, Knopfler pens terse little narratives about the mundane problems of his brethren: women trouble, money trouble, one’s-place-in-the-world trouble. He’s often as clever as he is banal, so a nice line (“I need a little water of love”) can be followed by a silly one (“You know it’s evil when you’re living alone”), or vice versa. If anything, living alone is what Dire Straits is about, and it sounds like a good life.
But Knopfler isn’t interested in writing songs with profound messages. In fact, the only time he tries it (“In the Gallery”), the message turns out to be a petulant attack on avant-gardism — i.e., a real yawn. No, Dire Straits get their effects by precise; well-played contrasts: the way a brisk bit of folk-rock is entitled “Sultans of Swing” and not only boasts an inescapable hook but also a goony, Bob Dylan-like snarl in its vocal. “Setting Me Up” sports a standard mangled-romance theme, but the verbiage is masticated by Knopfler’s growling, annoyed singing, with a giddy country-guitar solo tacked on at the end. It’s a heavenly number, funny and bitter.
Even when Mark Knopfler tends toward Bruce Springsteen-style street bathos in such miniepics as “Wild West End” and “Lions,” his band keeps everything admirably straightforward. Dire Straits is one of those quietly subversive albums whose sober lucidity reeks of rapid obscurity. It doesn’t deserve such a sad fate.