Picking holes in pretension
The mellow, musing “Ragpicker’s Dream,” released in October, is a breath of fresh folk and bluegrass from an MTV vet in a bleak era when not only is pop music getting blander and less daring, but where – a la Eminem – the only thing musicians seem to want to sing about is how much more intense they are than the inept “imitators” surrounding them on the charts.
Beyond that, is the barren, insanely lucrative wasteland of pre-sexualized teen-agers presided over by Britney Spears and those sniveling boy bands, whose most significant contribution to the world is to make awkward, acne-struck teens who don’t look like models feel even more insignificant.
But those are my words. Like I said, Knopfler, whose then cutting-edge music videos of the early ’80s conquered MTV long before Britney got her first G-string, isn’t about inflating himself. He’s just about making the sometimes sad, sometimes whimsical, sometimes unapologetically giddy music that fills “Ragpicker’s Dream,” a definite improvement on his previous release, the rewarding but uneven “Sailing to Philadelphia.”
Knopfler even subdues the masterful guitar work that fueled the music of the often under-appreciated Dire Straits. Though his fluid, torrential finger-picking sneaks through in compact, off-hand riffs, you won’t hear anything like his dazzling solos from “Sultans of Swing” or “Telegraph Road” on this low-key but smoothly produced album.
Knopfler’s less-proclaimed storytelling ability and deadpan but expressive voice come to the forefront here.
The album opens with the gloomy beer-hall stomp, “Why Aye Man,” a slightly bombastic tale in the style of Billy Bragg of impoverished Scots and Britons emigrating to Germany where there’s a better life and the local barflies are “wonderschoen” and the beer is “chemical free.”
The song, as with all tales of Diaspora, bemoans the Scots’ and Britons’ loss of their Geordie culture in their trip south. With a satiric twist, however, Knopfler wonders whether the putsch of that culture is such a big loss.
The second song, “Devil Baby,” is the album’s gem. It’s a bizarre lament about the grinding life of circus freaks sung in a masterful melancholy only Neil Young, or maybe Hamlet, has previously achieved:
The freaks’ll stay together, they’re a tight old crew,
You look at them and they look at you,
I love the ballyhoo girl but she don’t care,
It’s hard to find love anywhere,
Hard to find love anywhere.
Knopfler’s is a kinder, gentler, less apocalyptic version of Tom Waits’ phantasmagoric and madhouse world of limbless misfits, impish junkies and evil monkeys. Knopfler songs of displacement and drudgery swindle a page from the Brothers Grimm whereas Waits more often plunders the dementia of the Marquis de Sade.
The album seamlessly slips from the heartbroken to the hopeful. Knopfler follows the song, “A Place Where We Used to Live” a dreary dirge of a household and neighborhood gone dismally downhill with the lively, lighthearted “Quality Shoe,” where he whimsically gives a little advice to get life nimbly and comfortably.
The song is also appropriate for the mountains, where wearing the right shoe for the right activity can be critical. In other words, don’t buy your ski boots at the ski swap and don’t wear them mountain biking, now matter how sturdy they are:
You don’t want no standby pair,
“Cos these’ll take the wear and tear,
Made to take good care of you,
For that trip by road or rail,
For extra grip on those rocky trails,
You’re gonna need a quality shoe
With wind chime-like music that’s consistently evocative as it drifts from thundering to lonesome to dreamy, Knopfler also sings about the have-nots, the hungry and the aimless making their escapes through desolate landscapes. In “Coyote,” the drifter confronts the desert predator. In the background, Knopfler gives a knowing nod to the hapless Looney Tunes desert doofus, Wile E. Coyote. But here, the coyote’s prey is not the savvy cartoon bird, it’s a soul on the run headed over the horizon with torn clothes and upholstery, a dubious itinerary and his laundry in the backseat:
Once again the roadrunner leaves the coyote in the dirt,
You’ve got another plan of action, but we all know it ain’t never gonna work,
It must be hard having dog dreams that never come true,
And don’t you just wish that you could make half the speed I do
Another of the album’s more striking songs is the title track. If Harry Nilsson’s classic, “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me,” wasn’t already filling the role, Knopfler’s “Ragpicker’s Dream” could be the theme song for Dustin Hoffman’s uber-unfortunate, terminally underprivileged Ratso Rizzo from “Midnight Cowboy.”
On the other hand, the song “Ragpicker’s Dream,” also plays like the B-side of the jolly rags-on-the-verge-riches romp, “With A Little Bit of Luck,” that Eliza Doolittle’s town drunk-turned-nouveau riche father sings in “My Fair Lady.”
Did you ever think “My Fair Lady” and “Midnight Cowboy” would ever be compared, even indirectly?
In Knopfler’s song, a castoff and sidekick dream of the booze that flows plentifully at a cozy Christmas dinner in a life they’ll never savor. In mid-revelry, however, they’re rousted and pummeled by police:
The red-eye keeps tumbling, like tears in our beer,
Me and my associate like the ambience here where,
They cornered two castaways, in a while flashlight beam,
Merry Christmas and happy days, in the ragpicker’s dream.
Though it’s filled with regrets, you won’t regret buying this album.