Mark Knopfler's second solo album might as well be called Dire Straits' eighth studio album, though Knopfler abandoned the group name with 1996's Golden Heart, dispensing with hefty sales in the process. (All six of Dire Straits' studio albums at least went gold and reached the Top 20 in the U.S., while Golden Heart didn't even make the top 100.) ...
Mark Knopfler's second solo album might as well be called Dire Straits' eighth studio album, though Knopfler abandoned the group name with 1996's Golden Heart, dispensing with hefty sales in the process. (All six of Dire Straits' studio albums at least went gold and reached the Top 20 in the U.S., while Golden Heart didn't even make the top 100.) He may be happier now; from the lead-off track of Dire Straits' first album, "Sultans of Swing," he was celebrating small-time lives, and his biggest hit, "Money for Nothing," was a workingman's dismissal of a rock star. There was never much doubt that the fame and lifestyle coincident with platinum sales made him uncomfortable, and discontinuing the "Dire Straits" billing was a means of walking away from all that. It also allowed him to indulge his love for various musical genres more, and that process continues on Sailing to Philadelphia. True, Knopfler's basic approach remains the same; as a guitarist, he is still enamored of the minor-key fingerpicking style of J.J. Cale, and as a singer/songwriter, he remains enthralled with Bob Dylan. But in one song after another on this album, you get the feeling that he started out playing some familiar song in a specific genre and eventually extrapolated upon it enough to call it an original. "Who's Your Baby Now" seems drawn from the repertoire of the Everly Brothers as filtered through the Beatles of the Rubber Soul period; "Do America" could have begun life as a simple Bo Diddley riff; "Speedway at Nazareth" recalls the Appalachian style of the Carter Family; and "Junkie Doll" calls to mind Howlin' Wolf, especially "Sitting on Top of the World." (Lead-off track "What It Is," meanwhile, sounds like nothing so much as a classic Dire Straits song on the order of "Sultans of Swing.") Knopfler has grafted his own lyrical concerns to these songs, employing recurring references to life on the road (or on the sea or in the air, as the case may be) -- "Sailing to Philadelphia," "Baloney Again," "Do America," "Wanderlust" -- playing up the lives of humbled people, especially musicians ("Baloney Again" is about a traveling gospel group, circa 1953) and putting down powerful people, especially rock stars ("Do America" is about a British rocker on his way across the Atlantic, while "El Macho" mocks a star alone in a bar). There are also story songs on such wide-ranging subjects as the mapmakers Mason and Dixon ("Sailing to Philadelphia"), racecar driving ("Speedway at Nazareth"), an arranged marriage in the Old West ("Prairie Wedding"), and opposition to the building of London's Millennium Dome ("Silvertown Blues"), but the themes of travel and the dichotomy between the rich and famous (what Knopfler is) and the poor and powerless (those he identifies with) predominate. Working with a two-guitars, two-keyboards, bass, and drums band (the old Dire Straits lineup), Knopfler brings in a variety of sympathetic guests, notably James Taylor, who plays Mason to Knopfler's Dixon in "Sailing to Philadelphia," Van Morrison, and Squeeze leaders Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford. These guest stars provide pleasant contrast to Knopfler's modest vocal talents, but they never steal the spotlight from the leader. (Well, okay, Morrison does.) His ability to hold his own is some indication that, however self-effacing he may be, he remains a star. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi