What does it sound like?:
By the time of their fourth album, Dire Straits had experienced that now rare luxury of having time to grow and develop. A fiery live act, centred around Mark Knopfler’s astonishingly fluid guitar playing (and an uncannily tight and sympathetic collective ability as a group – check out their Old Grey Whistle Test appearances), they sometimes had the tendency on their first three albums to tip over into blandness. (For me, those early albums all tend to blend into one AOR gloop). But there were signs of greatness to come, not least in Knopfler’s burgeoning songwriting ability (Romeo and Juliet from Making Movies being his first unqualified success, a light, dancing creation tempered by a combination of street suss and cynical playfulness worthy of Paul Simon).
Love Over Gold, then, was a change in sound (they ditched the producer and allowed Knopfler to produce on his own) and a leap forward in maturity. While there is an unshakeable whiff of eighties about the whole project (the dread digital gated reverb is in full effect, as well as a track listing in the style of a computer monitor), Love Over Gold’s roots actually lie in those twin rock tropes that dominated the two preceding decades – Floydian expansiveness and Dylanesque lyrical bite. In fact, let’s be direct – Love Over Gold is Wish You Were Here meets Highway 61 Revisited.
At only five tracks long, it’s brief and painless. (It follows the Wish You Were Here blueprint almost to a tee, with two long doom-laden tracks filling side one, and side two comprising a rocker, a ballad and more doom to close). You really need the vinyl (almost definitely available for £2.50 or thereabouts in your local charity shop) to add weight to Love Over Gold as an object – the CD by comparison seems hopelessly slight, its apocalyptic lightning bolt on the cover reduced to a little plastic spark.
The epic opening track, Telegraph Road, is the only one I can really live without. It’s lyrically and musically overblown.
Private Investigations is much better. Seedy, slinky and constantly holding back from exploding into something else, the song has Knopfler ruminating in a deadpan monologue (over a minor key, Spanish-tinged tune) about the twisted side of love (the metaphor of private eye as jealous lover is ingenious). The second, instrumental half of the song is the real juice, however, an immaculately arranged wash of synth and guitar licks over a throbbing, portentous single bass note. The will power to resist the temptation of a florid, wild guitar solo must have been immense, but Private Investigations is all the better for this restraint.
Industrial Disease kicks off side two with some welcome levity. The lyric is perhaps too arch by half, and apes Dylan’s long-form wild comedy poems too exactly (Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Tombstone Blues), but who can resist wonderful lines like “Two men say they’re Jesus – ONE of them must be wrong!”. The pop-funk guitar chops foreshadowing Money For Nothing a few years later, Industrial Disease is infectious fun.
The title track is next. It doesn’t particularly excite me, being little more than a resurgence of the blandness of the band’s past albums. But it’s sweet, perfectly arranged and a nice breather before the heaviness of the closing track.
It Never Rains is Mark Knopfler’s dark masterpiece. Starting light, it continues the same tinkly piano sound from the previous track, but a deeper intent soon becomes clear. The debt to Like A Rolling Stone is obvious (the narrator lectures a central, probably female, protagonist who has fallen on hard times, with the vague suggestion of turning to prostitution) but Dylan’s jubilant sense of redemption and rebirth (“When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose”) is mutated into stark hellishness in Knopfler’s bleaker world view (“He takes you out in Vaudeville Valley with his hand up smothering your screams, and he screws you down in Tin Pan Alley in the city of a billion dreams”).
The effect is startling. Undoubtedly it’s grist to the mill for pop psychoanalysts who’d like to draw a connection between pampered male rock stars and thinly veiled misogyny, but it’s also a thrill to experience such direct, uncompromising art.
And where Dylan could never hope to match Knopfler is in the kind of musicianship displayed in the instrumental coda. Over a spiraling, incessant riff, Knopfler finally stretches out with a fiery guitar solo, while the song (and the album as a whole) slowly fades into oblivion.
What does it all *mean*?
Love Over Gold is an immensely satisfying package. An elevation of polished rock to art status, and the coming of age of Knopfler as a singer, songwriter and mature musician. The eighties weren’t all that bad after all.
Goes well with…
… a glass of gin and a cigar.
Might suit people who like…
If you pine after those heady seventies days when LPs were LPs, cohesive 40 minute statements, then you might be surprised that Love Over Gold keeps that spirit alive. Or if you’ve tapped your toes to Walk Of Life or Sultans Of Swing, but still balk at the idea of listening to a faintly naff band, then Love Over Gold might pleasantly surprise you with its lack of naffness.