(#434: 21 September 1991, 1 week)
Track listing: Calling Elvis/On Every Street/When It Comes To You/Fade To Black/The Bug/You And Your Friend/Heavy Fuel/Iron Hand/Ticket To Heaven/My Parties/Planet Of New Orleans/How Long
The success of Brothers In Arms was immense and intimidating. Perhaps nobody felt more imprisoned by its impact than Mark Knopfler. He had not followed it up for six years, and indeed in that time had put the band on two sabbaticals, during which he worked mainly on composing music for films. In addition, his “other band,” the Notting Hillbillies, had released a very well-received album (Missing…Presumed Having A Good Time) in 1990, and later the same year he teamed up with Chet Atkins for the Grammy-winning Neck And Neck. Both records saw Knopfler livelier and more enthusiastic than he had sounded in ages.
One might therefore assume that, in the autumn of 1990 when work reluctantly began on his main band’s next album, Knopfler was not especially keen on reviving the Dire Straits brand. He seemed to be having so much fun elsewhere. Drummer Terry Williams had left in 1988 and was not formally replaced; Jeff Porcaro, Manu Katché and the ubiquitous Danny Cummings variously filled in.
This has all left On Every Street with the undeserved reputation of being a weary, lacklustre and uninspired final album; that is how it was generally received critically. In Britain it stayed on the album chart for only thirty-six weeks, compared with the 271 weeks which its predecessor has racked up to date. There were no huge “anthemic” hit singles. The guest (on “The Bug”) was not Sting, but Vince Gill (in itself no bad thing).
However, when set against Brothers In Arms, On Every Street is actually by some distance the better album, subtler and more challenging. Many spectators (and fair-weather fans) were wrongfooted by its lead single (and lead track) “Calling Elvis.” Where were the hooks? Knopfler sounds as though he is falling asleep reading the Presley entry in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. The “song” appears to go nowhere.
On closer listening, though, what Knopfler sounds like is lost. He assumes the persona of a fanatical Presley worshipper, calling Graceland, refusing to accept that the King has died. He barely mumbles the words (and song titles); his voice is just an individual thread in an intensely and immaculately-woven sound picture. The rhythm and breaths turn around steadily and the track has no palpable sense of ending – if anything this is ambient House as the KLF of Chill Out might have recognised it.
If “Calling Elvis” is anxious, then the title song is terminal. He has lost her, is privately investigating her whereabouts but can’t find her anywhere – did she ever even exist? The music’s architecture sighs and heaves like a gigantic arc of grief concealment, up until the worrisome guitar lament finally works itself up into a strange and inconclusive extended fadeout highly reminiscent, as Stuart Maconie remarked at the time in his NME review of the album, of the Smiths.
The overall air so far is one of a break-up record, and not necessarily the break-up of a love affair. The pain sounds less reparable. The accents of doom dotting “Fade To Black” give notice of what some people in Bristol will be producing a few years hence. “The Bug” is not another “Walk Of Life” but is the necessary genial moment of relaxation and release. Here, as elsewhere on the album, the pedal steel work of Paul Franklin, on secondment from the Notting Hillbillies, is a vital companion of light to Knopfler’s self-effacing, if not self-erasing, darkness.
Even this does not prepare us for the awesome “You And Your Friend,” recorded seemingly as a hymn with Alan Clark’s synthesised carpet of modest Portobello beach intensity, and apparently an invitation to…well, if you know the Jefferson Airplane/Byrds song “Triad,” this may be relevant. But this mourning is sufficiently huge to compete with Bill Frisell’s Power Tools, let alone Chris Rea; words have in the past been written about Level 42 being “pop ECM,” but the latterday Dire Straits actually come closest to satisfying that definition – there is a similar, expensive, twilit nothingness to the music, barely masking the rays of infinity. No wonder the album hit especially hugely in France; On Every Street is almost as French a record, in its lackadaisical, compassionate vacancy, as Auberge. The trifle sounds like a modest spoon being stuck into the wheels of the universe.
“Heavy Fuel” is the record’s savagely ironic counterpart to “Money For Nothing,” and all the better for its unabashed irony. “Iron Hand,” which was about the 1984 battle between striking miners and police at Orgreave, is a folk song which could have existed for centuries (as, Knopfler explains in the song, do the actions which it describes).
Somehow Knopfler has managed to wriggle out of any expectations about what the next Dire Straits album should sound like, and discovers that he can do whatever he likes. “Ticket To Heaven,” with its Brill Building Latin rhythm, George Martin strings and (again) ironic lyric, points to what Richard Hawley would achieve in the following decade. “My Parties” is a very funny demolition of anti-environmentalist capitalism. “Planet Of New Orleans” was designed as the album’s major epic and works as such, probably because so few people know or have heard it; the song has something of the matily icy feeling of “Private Investigations” but Knopfler’s guitar in particular takes it to another galaxy. “How Long,” a simple (though not free of threat) country-rock lament for lost love which the Everly Brothers could have sung half a lifetime before, closes the record.
If Knopfler begins the album in a doze, or a daze, he gradually reawakens in the course of its dozen songs and surprises you by springing back to genial life. By then he had probably realised the imminent redundancy of Dire Straits, and since then has continued to work in his own and intermittently successful way. But if there is any one album from this 1991 set of number ones which desires re-investigation, it is On Every Street (perhaps it should have been entitled Love After Gold), a record which convincingly solves the conundrum of where Dire Straits might have gone had they not been sidetracked by the immense after-effects of Brothers In Arms.