Mark Knopfler might be the only rock star who has a dinosaur named after him. Really. A bunch of archaeologists paid him the tribute after unearthing a new species a couple years back. Still, "dino-rocker" isn't always a compliment: Look at Paul McCartney and the Stones. Yet unlike his British brethren, Knopfler refuses to wallow in the nostalgia of past Dire Straits' hits. No, he continues to make vital music, as he has again with The Ragpicker's Dream.
After leaving Dire Straits behind, Knopfler wrote some film scores; he started to explore roots music way before it became cool. While Golden Heart, his first and best solo CD, proved he could evoke the sounds of yesteryear, The Ragpicker's Dream has him digging even deeper, with Celtic influences, blues, folk and country. There's honky-tonk piano and his trademark finger-picking style, but if you're looking for a bouncy, Straits-like CD, this ain't it.
Knopfler does kick it out with the lead track, "Why Aye Man," a riff on life under Thatcher. (In cockney English, the title means, "Well, of course.") After that, however, you've got his quietest, mellowest album yet. Maybe this is how a rocker ages gracefully.
His introspective, often inscrutable lyrics pair nicely with his slow pace and gravelly vocals. But just what the heck are these songs about, anyway? A lot of them are sweet and alluring, but pure whimsy. "Old Pigweed" is about putting spoiled pigweed in somebody's Mulligan stew. "Daddy's Gone to Knoxville" is inspired by (and could have been written by) Knopfler's late friend Chet Atkins.
The CD's title song, "The Ragpicker's Dream," should be considered an instant classic. It's written from the perspective of a pub regular whose whiskey-induced reverie reveals what is missed by spending a lifetime on the stool at the end of the bar: "The Rail-King lay rocking / he was leaving the ground / then he was flying like Santa Claus / over the town / he came to the window / of a house by the stream / it was a family Christmas / in the Ragpicker's dream."
From the licks of "Sultans of Swing" and "Money for Nothing" to this -- if real dinosaurs had evolved this much, they'd still rule the earth.