May 07, 2005

Can't get no antidote for blues

Today is an important anniversary in the history of popular music. May 7, 1985 was the original release date of Dire Straits' blockbuster album Brothers in Arms, in my opinion, the finest rock record of all time.

[Brothers in Arms] I became a fan of Dire Straits entirely by accident in the summer of 1985: I thought they were Bruce Springsteen. His single "Glory Days" was relatively new to the radio and, having heard it only once or twice, I didn't know better than to confuse one catchy organ riff for another when I heard "Walk of Life" for the first time (in Canada, this single charted before "Money for Nothing"). Eventually I sorted the confusion out, but nonetheless I was hooked on Mark Knopfler's bluesy guitar and Dylan-influenced vocals.

Since then, I have worn out three copies of Brothers - one LP, one cassette, and one compact disc.

At this point I've probably alienated half my Fundamentalist readers whom, I am sure, have (barely) tolerated my preferences in reading materials. (And movies! Horrors!) But now I have finally ventured into music criticism and chose some of that **** rock music (substitute any adjectives you like; I actually had "ungodly heathen" in mind) for my first specimen. Surely this must be the last straw. What is Scott thinking?

As a Christian, I am commanded not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to pursue excellence, as Paul said:

[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Phil. 4:8)

  • Brothers demonstrates musical excellence. Back in 1985, appreciating Dire Straits was my first step away from the banality that top-40 radio was becoming. Mark Knopfler is a virtuoso at the guitar, demonstrating both skill and originality of style. As such he merits both appreciation and emulation. Knopfler made me want to learn the guitar. (I'm still trying.) Virtually nobody in the contemporary Christian ghetto is worthy of this level of appreciation, because CCM is, by and large, derivative and disposable. Bands that stand out from the rest of the pack frequently take heat from other Christians for naming secular artists as influences. But when you are the cream of the CCM crop, who else are you supposed to name? Floyd Cramer? Virtually every CCM artist wants to sound like U2, which is fine . . . but I already like U2 as it is.
  • Brothers demonstrates lyrical excellence. Dire Straits' history is one of transcending the fashonable music of the day: the commercial success of their debut album flouted the popularity of the rising punk movement. Simlarly, the intelligence of Brothers was a foil to the lyrical codswallop of New Wave artists such as Duran Duran. This album is varied in subject matter, from the bittersweet sentimentality of "So Far Away" to the biting satire of "Money for Nothing" and the anti-war confessional of "The Man's Too Strong."
  • Brothers demonstrates technical excellence. The first fully digitally recorded album to be released, it was in part designed to show off the new compact disc medium. It is a reference-quality CD - one of the three albums I use on those rare occasions when I want to evaluate new stereo equipment. Every instrument is crystal clear; the high frequencies of the cymbals sizzle while the bass rumbles; the atmospheric padding of the organ and synths fill out the sonic space.

Taking advantage of the longer CD format, the total length of Brothers is over 55 minutes. Almost ten minutes of this running length was cut for the vinyl release, which is how I first heard it. Personally, I prefer the shortened LP tracks; for the most part, the additional length is superfluous. The exception is the mournful trumpet solo by Randy Brecker that opens "Your Latest Trick," which was omitted from the LP release.

The first cut is "So Far Away," a bittersweet love song about trying to maintain a long-distance relationship over the phone. Supposedly Mark Knopfler wrote this tune for his wife while touring. It's a low-key beginning to such a monumental album, starting only with a pulsing bass and tapping on the hi-hat, before the song's main motif, a dobro slide, comes in.

Hoover movers! "Money for Nothing" is the song everyone remembers best about Dire Straits. The guitar work is phenomenal - as one guitarist in my school band quipped at the time, you shouldn't be able to make some of those sounds. Knopfler famously copied the lyrics on the spot as he overheard a worker in an appliance store ranting about performers on MTV. "Money" is an ironic commentary on MTV and pop fame, especially so since it was the Straits' biggest commercial hit. Listen for Sting singing "I want my MTV" in the style of the Police song "Don't Stand So Close to Me." The music video for "Money" [QuickTime MOV, 17 MB] was the first to make use of computer animation; as primitive as it looks today, it was groundbreaking at the time (and its creators went on to form Mainframe Entertainment, makers of the seminal CG cartoon ReBoot).

My favourite cut is the single "Walk of Life," an upbeat tune about a busker playing guitar in the subway tunnels. My preference for this track is partially due to sentimentality (it was my first experience with Dire Straits, after all) and partly to the catchy keyboard riff. This is the only song on the album where the keyboard is right up front; for the most part, elsewhere it provides colouration and atmosphere rather than melody.

After these three faster cuts, the album shifts down for the melancholy "Your Latest Trick," another bittersweet song about a late-night affair. Here the band substitutes jazz voicings for the blues, and the signature motif is the solo by jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker.

The album moves from regret to comfort in "Why Worry," a soothing, acoustic cradle song. Its earthly sentiment, that the sorrows of the present will not last forever, echoes the loftier Christian hope of the resurrection of the body and eterna life. While this is not a bad cut by any stretch, it is rather unremarkable, and my least favourite.

The last four tracks of Brothers (the B-side of the LP and cassette) are more or less unified by their anti-war theme. The Caribbean-styled "Ride Across the River" tells the story of soldiers of fortune who "don't give a damn who the killing is for," although, contradictorily, "the cause it is noble and the cause it is just." This is arguably the most atypical song of the album, if not Dire Straits' entire catalogue.

"The Man's Too Strong" is about an "aging drummer boy" - a war criminal confessing his sins to the priest before he faces the firing squad. The haunting acoustic arrangement contains my favourite musical hook of the album - the refrain is punctuated with guitar stabs that contrast dramatically with the otherwise quiet dobro accompaniment.

The penultimate track, "One World," begins as a complaint against the petty annoyances of life, but by the end, Knopfler sings the punchline: "They can't find a way to be / One world in harmony." Some fans have described this blues-based number as Pink Floyd-ish (I'm inclined to agree somewhat).

Finally, Brothers ends as quietly as it begins with the Celtic-tinged title track, a song about loyalty, cameraderie, and longing for peace. The long, slow, and intense guitar solo that closes this track is the perfect ending to the album.

It's hard to believe Brothers in Arms is actually 20 years old. But in these days of forgettable, throwaway pop junk (where will Britney or Justin be in 2025? Do we care?), it's great to give a fresh listen to a timeless album. No one's CD collection is complete without this quintessential recording.