Sailing to Philadelphia
First Appeared at The Music Box, March 2001, Volume 8, #3
Written by John Metzger
Since the demise of Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler has spent more time crafting movie soundtracks than new rock records. In fact, it's been four years since the guitarist's last solo record (1996's Golden Heart), which featured a dizzying array of song styles delivered in a remarkably cohesive fashion. Sailing to Philadelphia, his latest effort, is a bit tighter in focus. Unfortunately, however, it also lacks a bit in inspiration and at times seems to plod along without focus.
Part of the problem is that it appears as if Knopfler decided to play things a little safer for this outing. He pulled together a star-studded cast — Van Morrison, James Taylor, Gillian Welch, and Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford all make appearances on the album — but he limited his stylistic range significantly. It's true that several tracks wouldn't sound out of place on a Dire Straits record, and at times Knopfler recalls one of his former band's most underappreciated efforts Love Over Gold. Yet, there seems to be something missing from Sailing to Philadelphia that causes the album to occasionally drift into more routine adult contemporary pop fare. In addition, the songs on Sailing to Philadelphia lean a little too heavily towards what has come before them. What It Is recalls John Mellencamp's Rain on the Scarecrow; Do America recalls Knopfler's own Walk of Life and The Bug; and Speedway at Nazareth touches upon the folk-rock of Gordon Lightfoot's Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
That's not to say that Sailing to Philadelphia doesn't contain some great music. Knopfler has always infused his songs with strong lyrics, and his latest batch are no exception as they explore common themes of mankind's perseverance and aspiration. Baloney Again paints a portrait of racial discrimination through the eyes of a black gospel group; Silvertown Blues defines the blue-collar life as set against the backdrop of London's controversial Millenium Dome; and the title track documents Jeremiah Dixon and Charlie Mason's travels from England to America to determine the southern border of Pennsylvania.
Additionally, Knopfler is a premier guitarist, and when he lets himself go — as he does on the opening What It Is, the blues-fueled Baloney Again, and others — the result is something special. His playing adds a warm glow to the songs and often lifts them up before they can become too blasé. Nevertheless, Sailing to Philadelphia, despite being a solid effort that would appeal to his biggest fans, is hardly Knopfler's best work. ˝
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box