Top 10 Mark Knopfler Solo Songs
Although he’s still best known for his work with Dire Straits, 2013 marks the year that Mark Knopfler’s been a solo artist for the same length of time (18 years) that he fronted the band. In honor of that milestone (and given that his latest album, ‘Privateering,’ is due to arrive in American stores on Sept. 10), we decided to celebrate Knopfler’s solo sareer by taking a fond look back at some of our favorite cuts from his solo catalog. With such a rich body of work to choose from, we knew there was no way we’d be able to make room for them all, but whether you’re a Knopfler novice or a longtime fan, we think you’ll find plenty to listen to on our list of the Top 10 Mark Knopfler Solo Songs.
‘Speedway at Nazareth’
We begin our list of the Top 10 Mark Knopfler Solo Songs in an unlikely place. NASCAR isn’t exactly the first subject you’d expect to inspire a Scottish gentleman, but with ‘Speedway at Nazareth,’ from 2000’s ‘Sailing to Philadelphia,’ Knopfler demonstrates the breadth of his storytelling ability, using details gleaned from a racing friend (Swedish driver Stefan Johansson) to use the nicks and dings accrued during a NASCAR season as a metaphor for life — and a springboard into one of the longer electric guitar workouts in his solo catalog.
‘Why Aye Man’
Knopfler’s 2002 album, ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream,’ consists of a loose song suite examining the plight of the economically downtrodden — starting with the leadoff track, ‘Why Aye Man,’ which details the efforts of a group of U.K. Northeasterners to find employment in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union policies. They end up in Germany, where the ladies are “wunderschoen,” the beer is chemical-free, and the guitar solos are oh-so tasteful.
Five years after Dire Straits’ final album, Knopfler re-emerged with his first solo album of non-film music, and the first cut — ‘Darling Pretty’ — served as both a gently memorable single and a decisive statement of purpose. From the Celtic-tinged early moments of the song, Knopfler seemed to be letting listeners know not to expect Straits-style rock and roll, and he’s never really looked back.
He generally plays things pretty straight, so it’s easy to forget that a fair number of Knopfler’s songs contain a wicked streak of humor — including ‘Red Staggerwing.’ Culled from ‘All the Roadrunning,’ Knopfler’s 2006 album of duets with Emmylou Harris, ‘Staggerwing’ is a winking ode to gettin’ it on, delivered with fiddle-frosted country flair.
One of Knopfler’s many odes to the working man, ‘Border Reiver’ kicks off 2009’s ‘Get Lucky’ LP with a first-person look at the life of a Scottish truck driver with “800,000 on the clock / And plenty more to go.” It might sound like a bit of a grind, but Knopfler’s narrator embraces the freedom of the open road — feelings echoed by the song’s sprightly, danceable arrangement.
‘Let It All Go’
No matter how successful an artist might become, there’s always going to be a gap between how he views his art and how it’s received by the public — and some artists, like the world-weary painter at the heart of ‘Let It All Go,’ find themselves caught between fans who think they’re infallible and critics who think they’re dried up. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, with an artist who recognizes his only choice is to follow his muse, and let the rest of it go. An apt place to begin the second half of our list of the Top 10 Mark Knopfler Solo Songs.
‘Song for Sonny Liston’
What Knopfler’s solo records might lack in guitar pyrotechnics, they make up with his evolving gift for storytelling. His 2004 record, ‘Shangri-La,’ is packed with stories (including ‘Boom, Like That,’ a song inspired by McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc’s autobiography), but the most captivating one might be ‘Song for Sonny Liston,’ which tells the tale of the titular boxer’s life and death with a cool, dispassionate eye. Grounded with a loping beat and some crunchy lead guitar, it surrounds one of his solo discography’s sadder lyrics with a deceptively toe-tapping arrangement.
‘Done with Bonaparte’
It’s tough to write an anti-war song without being didactic about it — just ask Sting — but Knopfler’s ‘Done with Bonaparte’ offers a master class in how to get it done, underscoring the futility of battle by imagining the weary disgust of a soldier in Napoleon’s army and ending with the disillusioned sigh, “I’ll trust in thee to keep me, Lord / I’m done with Bonaparte.”
‘Sailing to Philadelphia’
The title track from Knopfler’s second solo release, ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’ draws its inspiration from Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Mason & Dixon,’ which uses the real-life accomplishments of surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (of the Mason-Dixon line) as a framing device for an epic 773-page story. Not the most obvious material for a pop song, perhaps, but with Knopfler playing Dixon to James Taylor‘s Mason, it works.
‘The Ragpicker’s Dream’
Knopfler has said he disbanded Dire Straits as a defense mechanism against the sheer size the band’s career had taken on, and ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream,’ which tops our list of the Top 10 Mark Knopfler Solo Songs offers a perfectly poignant example of the scaled-down beauty his best solo works have achieved. Like many of his best songs, it’s also open to interpretation: Is it a sweetly nostalgic ode to taking comfort where you find it, or the grim tale of two homeless men who meet an unfortunate end? As a member of Dire Straits, he might have had to film a video that made the answer clear; as a solo artist, Knopfler trusts the audience to find their own meaning, and here — as in most of his work — there’s plenty to be found.