Best Things Mark Knopfler Has Done Since Splitting with Dire Straits
There are many artists content with the height of their fame, preferring to fade into their later years without much fanfare or attention. Mark Knopfler is not one of them. As the lead guitarist, singer, and producer for much of Dire Straits’ famed material, the sheer quantity of his work suggested that he would appreciate downtime when Dire Straits last disbanded in 1995. That was hardly the case. Knopfler went on to produce a half-dozen quality solo albums, scored music for several films, and contributed to albums by Randy Newman, John Fogerty, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and more. Fans have come to expect his idiosyncratic guitar playing or production to appear on at least a few albums per year, a rare trait for stars that reigned in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
One reason for Knopfler’s sustained success after Dire Straits disbanded was his already being accustomed to working on side projects, thanks to Dire Straits’ handful of hiatuses. Even early in the band’s career, Knopfler was busy with a plethora of musical activities, especially in 1983 when he produced Bob Dylan’s twenty-second album, Infidels, and scored the soundtrack for Local Hero. Dire Straits’ third album, Making Movies in 1980, was Knopfler’s first production credit, but he handled production duties on all their albums from there. Infidels was the first non-Dire Straits album Knopfler produced, and he would later go on to produce releases by Aztec Camera, Randy Newman, and others. Local Hero was the first of his eight film scores, many of which were wildly successful – like 1987’s The Princess Bride and 1999′s Metroland. In these works, his diverse instrumental efforts were vital in establishing the film’s tone and chronological period shifts.
Knopfler composed five film scores before releasing his first solo album, Golden Heart, in 1996. Many film composers, even prominent ones like John Williams and Danny Elfman, get accused of being a stylistic one-trick-pony in regard to scores, but Knopfler is quite the opposite. His soundtracks are vary noticeably in style and approach. His first, for Local Hero, featured his famous finger-picking guitar abilities set over everything from country shuffles to delicate piano ballads. It was pleasant easy-listening that critics perceived as comparable to any Dire Straits material. His next score, the following year for Cal, had similar pleasantries, but with an Irish twist. The songs were more open and cavernous, with synth pads making a more prominent appearance as they floated over elegant string-picking. The woodwinds on a track like “Father and Son” showed a new side to Knopfler’s soundtrack work, permitting more instrumentation even as the arrangements became more focused.
One of Knopfler’s most reputable soundtracks, The Princess Bride, found him experimenting with both synth work typical of the ‘80s and medieval music. Sweeping orchestral tunes like “Morning Ride” sat alongside fervent castle-dancers like “Florin Dance.” His juggling of sounds, past and present, resulted in one of the most acclaimed soundtracks of the ‘80s. 1989′s Last Exit to Brooklyn was his last score for almost a decade, featuring a more intricate sound with a full orchestra. After that, Knopfler worked with Dire Straits until their final dissolution in 1995. He released his solo debut, Golden Heart, a year later. The release proved to be a culmination of his work to that point, featuring so many styles that it overwhelmed some critics. For instance, “Are We in Trouble Now” is a slow-chugging country burner, “A Night in Summer Long Ago” has a medieval theme akin his Princess Bride score, and “Cannibals” is straight-cut rockabilly. The album is all over the place stylistically, and allegedly was a challenge Knopfler issued to himself. It remains a very entertaining albeit unfocused album, sounding like a compilation rather than a full EP at points.
Knopfler would go on to release six more solo albums after Golden Heart, the most recent being this year’s Privateering, which premiered to positive reviews praising his back-to-basics finger-picking approach. Its emphasis on roots-rock and folk is admirable, especially on an effort like “Haul Away”, which blends stark Appalachian folk with a serene woodwind-accompanied buoyancy. It’s reminiscent of his Cal score, but with a gripping narrative and musky vocal delivery that makes it unique to Privateering, surprisingly one of Knopfler’s best solo releases to date.
Another solo release worth mentioning is 2004’s Shangri-La, Knopfler’s first release after breaking his shoulder, collarbone, and several ribs in a motorcycle crash a year earlier. Considering the circumstances, it was a beautifully serene effort, touching on elements of both British and Celtic folk with a newly ignited dark twist. The jangly “Boom, Like That” touts a ghostly nonchalance, while “Shangri-La” focuses on the frailty of life, a topic he has revisited throughout his career. “We may never love again to the music of guitars in our Shangri-La,” he sings over swaying acoustics and sliding twangs, perhaps unaware that lovers will continue to enjoy his music with delight, whether it’s his work with Dire Straits or his massive discography of film scores, solo releases, and high-profile collaborations. Mark Knopfler isn’t slowing down any time soon, as his discography becomes increasingly daunting and remains highly rewarding.