"Now hold your head up, Mason, see America lies there – the morning tide has raised the capes of Delaware" ... can you see it? Do you hear it in the way his guitar picks up its pace ever so subtly and takes on a lighter shade as he sings these lines?
"Sailing to Philadelphia" is a wonderful piece of storytelling, not only in Mark Knopfler's lyrics and vocals but, even more so, in the album's amazingly beautiful instrumentation. This is no record for those who are only into fast, harsh tunes; although in songs like "Baloney Again," "Junkie Doll," and "Silvertown Blues" Knopfler does take issue with modern society and its problems. More than anything, however, this album is a voyage – through time and space, from ancient Scottish citadels to 19th and 20th century America, and through musical styles ranging from blues to rock to folk to country; shining in its understated style as only Mark Knopfler's music can.
While "What It Is," the first track on the CD, is obviously reminiscent of the early Dire Straits, Knopfler said at an appearance during his 2001 tour that the song's intro and theme were actually (at least partly subconsciously) inspired by one of the Scottish folk songs he used to hear as a little boy in Glasgow. And indeed, it is hard not to picture Blue Bonnets (Over the Border) when you hear him sing about that Scottish piper standing alone high up on the parapet and the highland drums that are beginning to roll, all the while the garrison sleeps in the citadel "and something from the past just comes and stares into my soul."
From the cold tollgates of Caledonia, Mark Knopfler takes us to Durham and Northumberland and the coaly Tyne (where his own family moved from Glasgow, too, when he was still very young), and introduces us to Pynchon's heroes, the "Geordie boy" Dixon and Mason, the "baker's boy from the west country." While in many respects the guitar play in this song is vintage Knopfler, you can almost hear the waves of the Delaware River flowing out of the instrument. James Taylor's vocals, of course, are an ideal embodiment of Mason's character, and they perfectly compliment Knopfler's own voice which, it almost seems, has never been better than now.
"Prairie Wedding," the only love song of the album, carries on the theme of "A Night In Summer Long Ago" from "Golden Heart" – the poor medieval Scottish knight has become a 19th century farmer somewhere out on the American prairies, but he still takes his queen from the train station in the small town where she has arrived up the home trail, stunned by her beauty, embarrassed by the simplicity of his own circumstances and wondering, "Do you think that you could love me Mary? You think we got a chance of a life?" (Compare the last verse of "A Night In Summer Long Ago:" "Then I did lead you from the hall and we did ride upon the hill, away beyond the city wall, and sure you are my lady still. A night in summer long ago the stars were falling from the sky and still, my heart, I have to know, why do you love me, Lady, why?")
In modern-day America, Knopfler takes up the themes of black migrant workers in "Baloney Again," of a race car driver's tour from Indie track to Indie track and from accident to accident ("but at the Speedway At Nazareth I made no mistake"), and finally, of the "tables haunted by the ghosts of Las Vegas" and the "Sands of Nevada [which] go drifting away." This last song is the closing track only on the American version of the CD, by virtue of an executive decision made by the record company; and while its instrumentation and Knopfler's dark and coarse rendition of the lyrics are a masterful portrayal of the desolation of a Nevada ghost town and a gambler who has met his fate there ("in a wasteland of cut glass my dreams have all crumbled, and I've paid with whatever I had left for a soul"), I am not sure the record should end on this somber note.
This is my only (very minor) gripe with the album, though – all in all, this is Mark Knopfler at his best, featuring guest appearances not only by James Taylor but also by Van Morrison (in "The Last Laugh"), Gillian Welch (in "Prairie Wedding" and "Speedway At Nazareth") and many other artists; including, of course, "honorary 96er" Paul Franklin.