Knopfler, apart from being Dire Straits’ ex-frontman and a guitar hero to many, is a known
motorbike fan. Now 69, and with his legacy assured, the cover of Down the Road Wherever apparently indicates
a calmness and openness to whatever comes his way.
Knopfler seems to be taking advantage of this moment to be reflective, sometimes wistful, and tell gentle stories that have engaged him. As the album’s press release says, this is a collection of "unhurriedly elegant new Knopfler songs inspired by a wide range of subjects, including his early days in Deptford with Dire Straits, a stray football fan lost in a strange town, the compulsion of a musician hitching home through the snow, and a man out of time in his local greasy spoon."
Down the Road Wherever, released on 16 November 2018, contains 14 tracks and is Knopfler’s ninth solo studio album. The sound is predominantly Irish folk and rock, with touches of jazz, funk and country; and for this he has drawn on the talents of Ian Thomas on drums, Guy Fletcher and Jim Cox on keyboards, Nigel Hitchcock on saxophone, and Glenn Worf on bass guitar.
Trapper Man kicks off the album in the quietest way imaginable, easing listeners gradually into the song with some hushed acoustic guitar picking before the song really kicks in, seemingly signalling that the album’s journey has begun. The lyrics immediately invoke a hard character, perhaps lost in the wilds of northern Canada, who feels in his element dealing with the tough side of the natural world “Back out there is my country, and you best let this trapper be,” he sings.
Next up is Back on the Dancefloor, which is marked by a seductive blues funk beat and a western theme. It’s a lovely catchy track that features Imelda May on harmony vocals.
The following few tracks feature a wide variety of musical and lyrical styles: Nobody’s Child is a soft acoustic-based ballad, while the bluesy Just a Boy Away from Home focuses on a Liverpool fan lost in Newcastle and singing ‘you’ll never walk alone’ to himself, despite being in alien, and potentially threatening, surroundings. When you Leave on the other hand is introduced by a trumpet lament before giving way to jazz style piano and guitar.
Knopfler returns to heavy nostalgia on the album’s lead single, Good on You Son, which seemingly features him playing a 1934 National Resonator single cone biscuit bridge. “Left the backie and the beer where he was born and bred,” he sings, “Now he’s cutting it out here with the quick and the dead.” The video features Knopfler out in the countryside on a motorcycle in and around Newcastle, where he was raised, while the lyrics seem to suggest a contrast with that and his flash lifestyle in LA.
More yearning follows in My Bacon Roll, which finds a man’s mind flashing between humorous moments in his past and the current moment, where he is ordering bacon and toast in his local greasy spoon café. Nobody Does That has some punchy funky horns to add an upbeat twist, while Slow Learner draws on piano and trumpet to showcase what one critic described as Knopfler’s “inner Sinatra.”
Matchstick Man appropriately closes the album, as Knopfler recalls hitching hundreds of miles back from a gig in Penzance in his youth, snow heavy on the ground, with just his dreams to keep him warm. He plays acoustic guitar on this number, which emphasises both the longing and the simplicity of the experience.
On the Road Wherever traverses a wide variety of musical genres, and evokes a number of sharply drawn new characters along the way. It is a million miles away from Dire Straits’ huge hits and stadium days, but Knopfler seems to be enjoying his current more gentle journey enormously.