Review Summary: You feel alright when you hear the music ring
Rock music has come a long way from its roots. Over the decades, it has been transformed again and again, with a multitude of styles evolving in divergent directions. Many genres have moved in the direction of greater-and-greater complexity. Meanwhile, some bands through the decades have rejected this approach and followed a more simple formula. Creedence Clearwater Revival might be the most clear-cut example, but Dire Straits might also be included among the greatest groups of this category.
For those most familiar with the Dire Straits of the mid-80s, epitomized by bombastic hits like “Money For Nothing” and “Walk Of Life”, this statement might come as a surprise. Nonetheless, the band’s Brothers In Arms period was a bit of an anomaly within their career. Dire Straits emerged as a traditionalist group identified with the British “pub rock” scene, and they never fully emerged from this umbrella, instead becoming on the finest representations of unabashed old-school rock done right. All this is most clearly demonstrated on the band’s initial, self-titled, release.
1978’s Dire Straits is, quite simply, one of the finest debuts in music history. Built on a strong foundation of blues rock, intermixed with folk, country, and jazz influences, the album has near-endless replay value due to its excellent songwriting and fantastic instrumentation, both qualities which would define the band throughout their consistently-great career. Mark Knopfler is a brilliant guitarist, rarely flashy but reliably able to produce emotion in his playing perhaps only rivaled by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, while his guttural vocals add their own distinctive charm. Meanwhile, the rest of the band is also talented and sound.
This album has many marvelous qualities, but foremost among them must be its cohesive laid-back but melancholy nature. This results in a product which can be excellent in a wide variety of settings. Certainly, Dire Straits ranks among the greatest relaxation albums of all time, being quite easy to jam out to while also not demanding overt attention. At the same time, the potency of the lyrics and the frequently bittersweet or wistful subject matter makes this album also an excellent companion for more moody situations as well.
How about the songs themselves? There can be no complaints here. First of all, there is “Sultans Of Swing”, a classic in every sense of the word. Its romantic tale of a struggling local band playing on solely for the love of music is profound, especially since it very much represents the scene Dire Straits emerged from and everything they stood for, relying on a style of music which was certainly not “hip” at the time. That being said, it is far from clearly the best track on the debut, which says much about the exceptional quality of the album. Opener “Down To The Waterline”, featuring excellent guitar playing and nostalgic lyrics, is also a strong contender. Meanwhile, the country-esque “Wild West End”, presents a gorgeous melody and an atmosphere powerfully evoking the sights and sounds of London. “Southbound Again” and “Setting Me Up”, while simpler in terms of songwriting, are immensely catchy with tremendous groove, and manage to add variety to the album with their faster paces. Ultimately, every track on Dire Straits’ debut provides its own glories. Additionally, these songs are all subtle enough that every listen gives the listener greater enjoyment.
While they may today mainly be known for a few catchy hit songs, Dire Straits truly do deserve more recognition from the broader music-loving public. They were, throughout their career, a distinctive and powerful collective which kept a time-tested vision of rock music alive during an era dominated by newly-rising styles. Even disregarding their important place in musical history, their work is worth examining simply for the extraordinarily high-caliber of most of their songs. For anyone with any interest at all in that vaguely-defined area known as “classic rock”, Dire Straits are a must-listen artist, and their genuinely classic debut is a perfect place to start.