September doesn’t just herald the coming change of season. For me and several others around the world, every two years, it heralds the release of a new Mark Knopfler album. Get Lucky, his seventh solo album (including his duet with Emmylou Harris) was released a few weeks back, with just about as much fanfare as his previous releases; that is, almost none. An email about pre-concert ticket sales for a concert next April was how I came to know of this album.
Though the album was to be released only on September 14th (15th in the US), I got lucky and found out that my Rhapsody music subscription service allowed me to listen to the entire album a full week before the release. That alone justified the monthly subscription that I pay for Rhapsody. Coupled with Roku Soundbridge 1001, I listened to the entire album on my hi-fi system.
Compared to his previous album, Kill To Get Crimson, Get Lucky is a more modest effort, a notch or two below his best, especially in song writing, which has become his primary focus.
Across eleven tracks and 52 minutes, Knopfler uses flute, whistle, accordion and strings to produce a sound that is a throwback to the soundtracks of Local Hero and Cal. It is a september record: a few upbeat sunny songs but mostly quiet, midtempo tracks, tracks composed with a knowledge of the coming cold, austere times.
Three tracks stood out immediately. Hard Shoulder, the second song in the album, is a heartbreaking song about an unexpected loss. In a style that he employed on Hill Farmer Blues from The Ragpicker’s Dream, he starts with a workman listing out the things he has, the tools of his trade and then quietly slips in the real subject.
I’ve got latches for windows, handles for doors,
Grinders and scrapers and sanders for floors,
Rake for the gravel, chains for the snow,
Always got the shovel – you never know
I never thought you’d go
A workman, has stopped on the shoulder of a road, trying to recover from the loss. And with beautiful wordplay, he mixes the shoulder of the road with the need for a shoulder to cry on.
A few years back, we were having some repairs done on the house. The workman called to say the morning of the repairs that he had had a family emergency and that he couldn’t make it that day. I’ll call later and reschedule, he said. I was a little miffed (I had to shuffle my schedules so that I could be home when he showed up), but didn’t think much more. He called back a few days later and we rescheduled for him to come a week later.
He was an immigrant, like me, but eking out his existence in a much harder way than I ever had to. As he was doing his work, I remembered his family emergency and asked him if everything was alright. I remember how he looked at me, his clear blue eyes shattering as he said, “My daughter died last week. She was six years old. She had a fever that led to complications she never recovered from. That morning I was to come to your house, we had to rush her to the hospital”. I held him as he cried a little. I thought about my getting a little ruffled over his rescheduling. How little we know of the lives we call upon to care for our needs. Listening to Hard Shoulder reminded me of that man.
In true Knopfler fashion, the loss is never spelled out. A first reading made me think that it was about a lover leaving. But subsequent readings made me revise that opinion: this could be about any loss.
The second stand out track was the gentle waltz, Monteleone. The song is about John Monteleone, who Knopfler calls the world’s greatest living builder of the arch top guitar. The song is about his working of the wood to produce a beautiful musical instrument. I love the line “the chisels are calling”:
The chisels are calling
Its time to make sawdust
Steely reminders of things left to do
Monteleone, a mandolin’s waiting for you
The final standout track is also, in my opinion, the finest on the record, So Far From the Clyde. The song is about a ship taken to a breaker yard, some desolate beach in some impoverished part of India. I felt my insides rip as he sings about the ship as it is first shattered by riding it hard into the ground and then hacked and sawed off “’til there’s only a stain in the sand”. The ship comes alive, becomes a living thing. In one beautiful stanza, he sings:
As if to a wave
from her bows to her rudder
bravely she rises
to meet with the land
Under their feet
they all feel her keel shudder
A shallow sea washes their hands
I love the way he mixes in the metaphor of Pilate’s washing off his hands at the judgement of Jesus to the actions of the people involved in the tearing down of the ship.
Again, the song at one level, can be treated as merely the story of a ship, or it can be treated as an elegy to the end of a way of life. The song reminded me of an article that I had just read on NYT, about the lonely, wretched existence of many elderly immigrants in this country. The lead anecdote was about a Sikh father, living in the not far-off East Bay town of Fremont. Many of these immigrants had been cast aside by their children after being brought to this country. Now far from their social network, their ways of knowing and being, a stranger in a strange land, they seek solace in the company of fellow immigrants in similar positions and return to their rented places to die lonely deaths. Not unlike a ship that sailed proud and free for many years but taken at its end to a strange place. From the article:
Mr. Singh, the widower, grew up in a boisterous Indian household with 14 family members. In Fremont, he moved in with his son’s family and devoted himself to his grandchildren, picking them up from school and ferrying them to soccer practice. Then his son and daughter-in-law decided “they wanted their privacy,” said Mr. Singh, an undertone of sadness in his voice. He reluctantly concluded he should move out.
So when he leaves the Hub, dead leaves swirling around its fake cobblestones, Mr. Singh drives to the rented room in a house he found on Craigslist. His could be a dorm room, except for the arthritis heat wraps packed neatly in plastic bins.
The album is unusual in that it comes with some liner notes by Knopfler, a man known for his understated, taciturn persona. Knopfler writes that this album was a personal one more than usual. His uncle, dead at the age of 20 in WWII, is the piper in “Piper to the End”, his father makes an cameo on “Before Gas and TV” and his own childhood and adolescent life is the fabric from which songs such as Border Reiver and Get Lucky are sown. But I found his songwriting on most of the songs not upto his usual exemplary standard.
Maya likes the three songs that I mentioned as well as the title track and Border Reiver. Especially, Monteleone which is one of her staple goodnight songs now.
There’s so little new music that soothes me. Don’t get me wrong. I continue to find new music that I enjoy, new styles and new artists. But novelty isn’t all that it’s cut out to be. Homecoming is not about novelty, but it is among the most emotionally complex and satisfying experiences. Listening to Knopfler is like a homecoming to me. Not all homecomings are as good and satisfying. But we go home anyways. And so, I’ll listen to this album.
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