Album of the Week: Dire Straits, Dire Straits

I get jealous when I listen to this album. I get jealous that I don’t have Mark Knopfler’s voice, his hands, or a drummer named Pick Withers. But even if I had all of these things, I don’t think I would have been able to make an album as good as Dire Straits, the group’s first album from 1978.

It’s an album of clean-picked, lean, and muscular songs—the group’s best, in my opinion, even better than 1985’s Brothers in Arms. While later Dire Straits veered towards the black hole of bad ‘80s musical decisions, this first album, right at the end of rock’s greatest decade, remains firmly anchored in rock basics. The whole album—honestly, all 40 minutes of it—only has three instruments: guitar, bass, and drums. If a record can be complimented as “efficient,” this one certainly is.

The nine songs also have a remarkable sonic unity. Remarkable because they succeed at the difficult balancing act between “aural identity” and “these songs sound the same.” They share a certain lyrical aesthetic, certainly, but the dry, treble-heavy production is what really glues the songs together. The band sounds laidback, but not sedated, as “Setting Me Up,” “Southbound Again” and (of course) “Sultans of Swing” attest. These three songs rock, but their energy comes from an entirely different place than, say, an AC/DC song. Interestingly, both “Highway to Hell” and a song like “Southbound Again” are musically very spare, but where AC/DC thrives on big statements, volume, and pummeling chords, it’s Knopfler’s precision and dexterity that pushes his songs forward. To make a perhaps sacrilegious comparison, AC/DC is the Louis Armstrong to Dire Straits’ Chet Baker.

For me, the primary attraction will always be the guitar tones on this album. Listen to the intro to “Setting Me Up.” Fantastic—when people describe a guitar as “honky” or “clucky,” this is what they mean. What is it about British musicians that allow them to interpret American music better than we do? The solo on the track turns a ton of country and blues clichés on their heads, and manages to sound like a pedal steel guitar rather than a Stratocaster. It’s just great, innovative playing.

Despite the fact that the album is firmly rooted in American musical heritage, Knopfler manages to integrate a British touch into his lyrics. The straight blues of “Southbound Again” and “Down to the Waterline” include references to the River Tyne in northeast England rather than the Mississippi, and “Wild West End” is one of my favorite songs about London. Knopfler sings about what he knows, which makes songs like “Lions” and “In the Gallery” come off as genuine rather than forced.

At its base, Dire Straits is a workman-like album. It’s the type of album that I think a lot of musicians wish they could make: consistent, well-crafted, and precise, but not robotic or devoid of feeling. The band works as hard as a team of carpenters, to turn out a high quality product that you love every time you use (or listen) to it.