Dire Straits were one of those rare groups who had a perfect, distinctive style from the moment of their inception, an innate understanding of their gifts and in which ways to best employ them. There was no initial insecurity, hesitation or inhibition hindering the realization of their artistic vision, nor were they impeded by any of the potential performance related failings of a new group such as a lack of chemistry or the sloppiness often inherent to rock artists in their embryonic stage of instrumental development.
In place of these defects were simply brilliant songwriting, unimpeachable performances and evocative instrumentation. The band centered around frontman Mark Knopfler's minimalistic guitarwork, an area in which he's a true virtuoso; he focuses more on the beauty of each individual note as opposed to the relentless finger flashing style that typifies myriad guitar heroes, and in this regard he truly excels, cultivating pervasive, haunting atmospherics through the sparseness of his guitarwork and the band's pared down arrangements.
Spending some time as a disciple of Bob Dylan Mark Knopfler was able to hone his poetic skills to a respectable level; he doesn't reach the standards of his incomparable mentor from this perspective, but his lyrics are still very strong and suit the music perfectly, and are thus a great asset for the band.
In addition to often emulating Dylan's lyrical style he also imitates his vocal delivery on many occasions; this isn't a case of mere impersonation, as Mark Knopfler adds his own unique twist to his singing and abstains from attempting to mimic each individual vocal nuance and intonation, but his homage to his master is still rather pronounced, albeit adapted to fit Mark Knopfler's vastly different musical style.
The fusion of Mark Knopfler's impressive songwriting and brilliant guitarwork results in great aural experience, and thus highlights abound on this eponymous debut. There's no filler, merely a parade of often dark, moody classics. Down To The Waterline starts the album on a high note, offering the listener their first taste of Mark Knopfler's deft minimalistic playing, followed by Water Of Love with its unforgettable refrain; from there Setting Me Up is what would be an innocuous pop interlude but is rather transfigured into a mixture of lightweight poppiness and the band's signature sparse aesthetics, while Six Blade Knife may very well be the best cut on the album, a tenebrous, atmospheric epic wherein its bone chilling menace is accentuated by its haunting minimalism, further compounded by the low volume which makes Mark Knopfler's vocal delivery and guitarwork all the more intense, moody and penetrating.
Southbound Again offers something of a reprieve after the highly potent Six Blade Knife, segueing into the album's most famous and beloved track, the infectious masterpiece Sultans Of Swing with its stellar riff and great lyrics. In The Gallery is an incisive indictment of the art world, Wild West End is a pretty, mellow track and Lions is a fitting end to this minimalistic masterwork.
Thus Dire Straits' debut is an incredible product, deftly marrying minimalistic arrangements to strong songwriting and intelligent lyrics. Nearly the entire album sustains a caliginous, unsettling atmosphere that intensifies the sonic experience, gripping the listener for the duration of the record.
Mark Knopfler's guitarwork is uniformly brilliant throughout, casting him as a true master of minimalism who never wastes a single note. It's his fascinating playing that truly enthralls the listener, entranced by his hypnotic instrumental prowess. As the singer, lead guitarist, composer and lyricist this is truly his album, and thanks to his musical genius the record emerges as an artistic triumph, a dark vision made all the more haunting by its subtlety and self-restraint.
Unfortunately the album is the zenith of the band's discography, as they neither managed to ever duplicate its success nor find an alternative style that could match the brilliance of their debut. Nevertheless, as much of their subsequent fare was quite strong this is largely a testament to the greatness of their eponymous outing, a minimalistic magnum opus that depicts the band at their finest.
Given how much Communique owes to its predecessor, Dire Straits must have realized that they'd found a striking, unique sound in the form of the band's haunting minimalism; unfortunately, they failed to realize that minimalism in and of itself isn't a virtue, only effective when applied to an already compelling melody.
Mark Knopfler's minimalistic guitarwork was instrumental in cultivating the enveloping, pervasive atmosphere featured on the debut, but when divorced from strong songwriting his virtuoso playing is rendered impotent; Mark Knopfler's instrumentation certainly contributed to and helped shape the album's atmospherics, but only when combined with preexisting melodic material, and thus when taken in a different context wherein it can't derive its structure and soul from strong musical inspiration it fails to cast the same kind of spellbinding atmosphere over the proceedings.
Such is the case on the band's sophomore effort Communique, an album afflicted with a terminal case of blandness and genericism. There are certainly some strong tracks; the opener Once Upon A Time In The West admittedly liberally borrowed from the band's past work in fashioning its melody, but it has enough of an independent personality that it can distinguish itself as an impressive song in its own right, while Single-Handed Sailor also vies for the album's top slot with its superb melody and tight performance.
Unfortunately, while universally inoffensive the remainder of the material doesn't fare terribly well. The majority of the tracks are simply primitive and nondescript, and minimalistic arrangements can't salvage a track premised on a weak foundation. Mark Knopfler tries his hardest to infuse some life into these songs with his masterful guitarwork, but when bereft from catchy melodies these numbers amount to little more than run of the mill filler.
Ultimately Communique is a rehash that fails to understand what made the original a great album in the first place, and is thus condemned to wallow in the nebulous limbo between decent and average. There're enough positive elements featured throughout the album to merit a pretty good rating as, in addition to the aforementioned standouts, Mark Knopfler's guitarwork can still be enjoyed on some level even on tracks that are otherwise ostensibly mediocre, but the record's still a severe disappointment after the brilliant debut.
Mark Knopfler simply neglects his duties as a songwriter to focus on other facets of the band's sound, forgetting that on any album this is the most crucial department of all. Thus much of the atmospherics sound lifeless and flaccid, defanged by the rudimentary melodies. Even the lyrics are a step down from Dire Straits' eponymous debut, coming across as more basic and derivative.
Thus Communique is a colossal letdown, a decent outing where one would have expected a masterpiece. The album comes across as a bastardized remake of their debut, yielding predictably tepid results. The album is saved from mediocrity by the fact that Dire Straits remain a topnotch band, and are thus able to make even a decidedly lesser LP enjoyable, but compared to their debut the album suffers enormously, lacking the substance that had made their first effort and undisputed classic.
Apparently Dire Straits didn't learn much from the highly flawed Communique, as they repeat many of the mistakes made on their sophomore outing. Stylistically little has changed, save for the introduction of keyboards (which thankfully, by and large, have yet to become a crucial part of the band's arrangements) and the departure of David Knopfler (which eliminates the interplay between Mark Knopfler's lead guitar and his brother's rhythm guitar that had been so prominent on their previous venture). At heart Making Movies is the stylistic successor to its predecessors, meaning more minimalistic guitarwork and little in the way of deviation from the group's signature sound.
Unfortunately Making Movies inherited the largely bland, nondescript melodies from Communique; this isn't always the case, as evidenced by minor classics such as the opener Tunnel Of Love which deftly alternates between harder and softer sections, but on the whole the caliber of the songwriting is far more reminiscent of the generic, forgettable fare found on their second record as opposed to the subtle brilliance contained on their debut.
As can easily be inferred by the rather transparent song titles (from Tunnel Of Love to Romeo And Juliet to Expresso Love to Hand In Hand), the album primarily deals with love thematics, a rather banal subject matter after the far more intriguing lyrics found on their prior work. These rudimentary romantic tableaus are matched with equally pedestrian music, resulting in a final product that offers little to engage the listener, nearly meriting the frequent, consummately unjust accusations of boredom leveraged against the group's output.
The album is further exacerbated by its notorious closer, the homophobic anthem Les Boys which is a worthy candidate for the band's worst track ever. Whereas nothing else on the album is actively bad or qualitatively offensive, Les Boys is an egregious lapse of taste, lyrically benighted and accompanied by a basic, primitive melody that's virtually bereft of any properties that could be deemed good.
Ultimately Making Movies fails to correct any of the mistakes made on their previous outing, resulting in recurring problems that should have been dealt with after the lackluster Communique. As always Knopfler's guitarwork is strong, and there are a handful of decent tracks to reinforce the positive impression left by the opener Tunnel Of Love, and thus the album is able to secure a decent rating, but on the whole Dire Straits seemed to be stuck in a creative rut, caught in a nebulous limbo between the haunting minimalism of their debut and any potential artistic development, resulting in neither side being implemented in a satisfactory manner.
Dire Straits were simply incapable of duplicating their timeless debut, and thus their efforts in that direction were condemned to failure, while their strides toward intended artistic progression, such as the addition of keyboards, were inadequate in and of themselves in terms of effecting any real changes in the band's sound.
Thus Making Movies is a dispensable effort, mired in the band's simultaneous desultory, fruitless searches for a new artistic voice and refusal to take a true risk and eschew the trappings of their former selves. The final product is simply another retread, neither capturing the magic of the debut nor achieving anything new or noteworthy to rejuvenate a band poised on the brink of stagnation.
On Love Over Gold, Dire Straits finally emerge from their subdued world of low-keyed restraint and brooding minimalism, forsaking their signature formula in favor of tackling concepts of epic stature with a scope and vigor never before depicted on any of the band's albums.
The album's epic nature manifests itself in many forms, but one of the key departments it affects is the song length; the record contains a mere five songs, with the shortest track nearly reaching the six minute mark and the longest exceeding fourteen minutes. The band had never packed particularly many songs on a given album, in fact never even surpassing nine, but this is still a dramatic change for the group, by necessity causing Knopfler to modify his approach to songwriting, which is precisely what he does over the course of the album.
The album opens with its best cut, the epic, multi-part Telegraph Road, a stellar track that contains some spectacular guitar solos; Knopfler's guitarwork here is vastly different from his erstwhile minimalistic methodology, far more energetic and flashy, but this doesn't make it any less impressive as he proves his multi-faceted proficiency with his instrument of choice.
From there Private Investigations is an ominous, dour number; while it is indeed minimalistic it achieves this end in a different fashion from the group's customary approach depicted on their earlier work, for while it's certainly musically stripped down it focuses on more overtly threatening, unsettling lyrics and music as opposed to emphasizing Knopfler's trademark minimalistic guitarwork.
Industrial Disease is a bouncy, humorous and eminently catchy song, predominantly focusing on the contrast between the levity of the music and the darker subject matter; the title track, while lesser, is still quite good and the closer, It Never Rains, is quite moving.
Overall Love Over Gold is a vast improvement over Communique and Making Movies, and it accomplishes this feat, counter intuitively enough, by shedding the stylistics of the far superior debut. It may seem odd to effect an artistic rejuvenation by abandoning the elements that made Dire Straits a great band in the first place, namely the focus on minimalism, but ultimately it's quite understandable; the group was incapable of reproducing the quality of their debut, rendering it far more effective to simply start over, taking a new approach that in essence gave the band a clean slate. Thus the burden of their past was alleviated from them, freeing them to find a new approach that would lead them to artistic success. This new approach almost certainly wouldn't result in an album of the caliber of the debut, but at least it would yield a fresh product, on which the group would find new ways to express their talents.
The result is the band's strongest product since their eponymous debut, an album that enables the band members to apply their talents in different ways after their stillborn development induced by the group's parade of rehashes. This was a catalyst for reawakening the once dormant creativity of the band, leading to an album that not only offers something different from the group's norm but likewise offers a profoundly rewarding listening experience as well.
The case of Brothers In Arms is one of the most basic, predictable and transparent stories imaginable: Dire Straits shifted into a far more mainstream mode, instantly translating into a commercial breakthrough in the form of what's easily their best selling album, Brothers In Arms.
The band tends to eschew their erstwhile minimalistic style in favor of a more typical, derivative sound, one that's further ravaged by the inevitable eighties production values, often manifesting themselves with regards to booming drum and ubiquitous synths.
The album's overall success, however, can largely be attributed to the presence of the band's most famous and beloved (by casual fans, that is; they're likely anathema to many devoted fans who have followed the group's progress from their inception to their ultimate sellout) tracks, Money For Nothing and Walk Of Life.
The former is a great hard rocker that viciously skewers the MTV phenomenon and resultant subculture (which of course, given that it's penned by Knopfler, features a homophobic component in the language used), boasting an incredible riff and wonderful pure rock energy, a song that, while it lacks the Dire Straits subtle magic of old, remains a deserved classic.
The latter is an upbeat pop gem based around one of those rare eighties synthlines that actually works, neither afflicted by the noxious production methods often inherent to the epoch nor mired in over familiarity or artificiality. It's a truly welcoming, uplifting track that, while an incongruous episode in the band's catalogue, is still a testament to Knopfler's abilities as a songwriter.
It's safe to assume that a large part of the album's success can be linked to this terrific duo, as I can't fathom why prospective listeners would be drawn to the remainder of the record. The majority of the LP is composed of adult contemporary at its most bland and banal, pedestrian fare lacking in compelling melodies or attractive hooks. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the preponderance of the songs are quite long, over-extended thanks to frequent tedious, extraneous codas.
The title track, for example, not only fails to be the moving epic it envisions itself as, it likewise fails to emotionally resonate with the listener at all thanks to its simplistic lyrics and over-inflated sense of importance. It drags interminably for minutes on end, and its position as the album's closer compounds the ill will it will cultivate in its audience toward the record itself.
There are respites from the relentless onslaught of adult contemporary, hence the rocker One World; unfortunately, while it indeed breaks up the monotony of the album with a much appreciated change of pace, it's far too generic and uninteresting to constitute a true asset, lauded more for what it isn't rather than what it actually is, truly a case of damning with faint praise.
Most of the album is simply a chore to listen to, comprised nearly exclusively of slow moving adult contemporary fare that barely registers for the listener thanks to its repetitive feel and tedious song structures. There's a critical paucity of creative or entertaining melodies, leaving inert, lifeless sonic experiences with nothing to sustain or animate them.
Thus the album represents a low point for the band; it's not terrible, largely thanks to the presence of Money For Nothing and Walk Of Life, but it's the hardest Dire Straits album to listen to in its entirety, as invariably it will takes its toll on the patience of its listeners.
Ergo the album is borderline mediocre, salvaged only by the aforementioned highlights. While Love Over Gold was a success because it found a new direction for the group, it still retained the feel of the band; Brothers In Arms rarely sounds like a Dire Straits album at all, a betrayal of the group's identity that proves that there was more to Dire Straits' essence than a mere minimalistic sound.
Ultimately it's difficult to recommend the album as a whole; it may offend Dire Straits fans with its more mainstream character, coming across as a bastardization of the group, while it may simply bore a more casual fan with its enervated pace and lack of momentum. Money For Nothing and Walk Of Life are indeed strong numbers, and they certainly merit a listen, but they aren't sufficient to justify an actual purchase of the album.
After a protracted sabbatical Dire Streets returned with an album that lacked the commercial aspirations that had shaped their last outing, resulting in a final product that's a far more fitting swansong for the band than the mediocre Brothers In Arms would have been.
The trappings of the realm of adult contemporary have been shed, replaced with a more restrained, subdued tone that conjures memories of the band's earlier work without seeking to duplicate the formula of their eponymous debut. The album has its own sound, a healthy balance between the group's erstwhile minimalism and more dynamic later work.
The album is rather consistent, bereft of any enduring or standout classics but rather engaging for its duration nonetheless. Both the songwriting and performances are universally solid, unspectacular yet sufficiently compelling so as to draw the listener into the experience and sustain their interest.
The album is rather stylistically limited, with a pronounced dearth of variety, but the songs are at least varied enough to dispel any potential monotony. Hence there are rockers (such as the hard rock workout Heavy Fuel, a tune in the same vein as Money For Nothing that even sports a riff that's conspicuously reminiscent of the one featured on that anti-MTV anthem) and ballads, with attempts throughout to at least vary the tempo of the album.
The record can seem somewhat underwhelming given the paucity of truly original or memorable tracks, but it works better as a collective whole as opposed to a mere compilation of individual songs, as from this perspective it goes a long way in establishing a certain mood, boasting arresting atmospherics and a cohesive feel lacking from most albums.
The album certainly contains more of the true Dire Straits spirit than its lackluster predecessor did, not to mention a greater degree of consistency compared to that erratic, borderline bipolar LP, with more interesting melodies (albeit none that are anywhere near the level of the best cuts off that record, Money For Nothing and Walk Of Life). The band doesn't appear to be attempting to produce a timeless classic, instead being more concerned with crafting a humble, engaging aural experience.
Thus On Every Street is a thoroughly solid product, an engrossing and rewarding listen that's unspectacular at heart but meticulously crafted nonetheless, succeeding more due to this intricate craftsmanship than any brilliance in the songwriting department. In this regard it's an apt swansong, displaying the group's careful, intensive labor over their art that made such meticulously crafted products as their eponymous debut such exceptional classics. The group didn't always betray signs of genius, but they were certainly highly devoted to their craft, a point that this album eloquently illustrates.