David Knopfler, co-founder of Dire Straits and younger brother of Mark, has recently released his 17th solo album, Last Train Leaving (20 January 2020; Paris Records), and in these troubled times it is heartening to see a photo of him on his website looking serenely out over gentle and beautiful rolling countryside.
The album cover artwork, on the other hand, painted by Leslie Stroz, Knopfler’s wife, shows a man with a guitar calmly walking down what could easily be an abandoned country railroad track, which bends away off into the distance.
These are images of tranquility which are in many ways reflected in Knopfler’s latest offering, and contrasts starkly with those years in which he used to play rhythm guitar on his black 1962 Stratocaster in stadiums across the world. But, as he says himself, at that time he felt ‘...alienated and lost for the most part...’ and in many ways was happier to strike out on his own to produce and write his own material, because “...songwriting always brought me back to dry land.” These days, therefore, he is both more content in himself and more likely to be seen with a Furch acoustic or a Martin in his hand.
On his solo albums Knopfler has worked with Chris Rea, Eddi Reader and his long time friend Harry Bogdanovs, and Bogdanovs also features on this album, along with George Shilling (who, among many other achievements, engineered Yazz’s smash hit The Only Way is Up at the tender age of 21). In fact, Shilling plays cello and contributes to half a dozen of the tracks, including Only a Miracle, The Gift of Life (Last Train Leaving), These Two Hands and Glory Be. “David lives quite close to me in Newton Abbot, Devon,” explains Shilling, who has worked on and off with Knopfler for 20 years. “He sent me those tracks that were half-finished and left me to add [what I felt was right],” he says in an interview with Guitars Exchange.
And nowhere on the album does Shilling’s cello work as well with Knopfler’s piano and gravelly voice than on Only a Miracle. This piece, which is aptly described by Facebook commentators as “gorgeous” and “really beautiful”, speaks of fisherman, sacred love and angels who, uniquely, ‘know the secret of our heart’.
Presciently, Only a Miracle and the title track, The Gift of Life (Last Train Leaving) are among a number of tracks on the album that almost seem to foresee the current pandemic. On the former Knopfler sings “Me I do my dance, in benediction to the story, a story with a longing to be born, only a miracle can save you from the storm,” while on the latter he growls ‘the gift of life is so fleeting, the gift of life is so frail’. Earlier on the album, on the piano-driven ballad That Perfect Storm, he intones forebodingly “I think to myself there is a bad storm rising in this crazy world.”
Knopfler’s current album was due to be performed live on a 2020 heartlands tour of Belgium and Germany from March to May, but like many other tours it has now been postponed until 2021.
However, with Last Train Leaving Knopfler has written and produced a lovely and gentle album that offers an oasis of peace in difficult times. As he once said: "I just like to plough my own furrow - and be left in peace to do it - it works for me..."