Five years ago, Dire Straits was threatening to become the biggest band in the world — and/or an extended arena-rock cliché — when Mark Knopfler whipped off his headband, put down his guitar and hopped off the “money for nothing, chicks for free” treadmill. After an extended hiatus, Knopfler has made an album that falls somewhere between a radical reinvention of Dire Straits and the next step on a continuum from the mega-platinum Brothers in Arms, released in 1985. While “Heavy Fuel,” sardonic but fairly witless, will likely emerge as a raised-fist, frat-boy anthem in the “Money for Nothing” mold, most of the rest forsakes heavy-riffing guitar-hero histrionics for more mature brands of mood music.
In the manner of last year’s Notting Hillbillies and Knopfler’s other side projects, On Every Street explores Knopfler’s affinity with Nashville in particular and with an idealized version of the musical South in general, with session steel player Paul Franklin emerging as his major musical foil. The album opens in Memphis with “Calling Elvis,” which offers a playful ride on the “Mystery Train” into a brave new world of sampling and rhythm loops. From there the songcraft of “When It Comes to You,” “The Bug” and “How Long” practically demands the country-cover treatment, while Franklin additionally makes key contributions to the cocktail-jazz cool of “Fade to Black” and the “Spanish Harlem”-tinged “Ticket to Heaven.”
While the more economical material offers the major musical pleasures, some of the longer pieces seem like mere exercises in style: The title song and “You and Your Friend” mainly serve as excuses for the instrumental interplay of their extended fades. At more than seven minutes, “The Planet of New Orleans” was apparently designed as the album’s centerpiece, but it sounds like a leftover from one of Knopfler’s film sound-tracks, its evocation of “mojo root” incongruous, given a musical backdrop that suggests the aural equivalent of designer fashion.
As a whole, On Every Street reconfirms that Knopfler is an impeccable guitarist, a musician of exquisite taste — but some of it shows why impeccability in rock is often a minor virtue and tastefulness a smooth path to tedium.