4 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 68

Pop music

Master craftsman

Marcus Berkmann

You can always spot the contented pop star. Broad smile, slightly puffier cheeks than before, even tan, flecks of grey at the temples, not many photos of them on their new album. Well, if you were a contented pop star, would you want to give the game away? Misery and gloom are widely respected in rock circles, but happi- ness just winds everyone up. Radiohead's Thom Yorke reacted to global megastar- dom and the glazed adoration of millions by sinking into a three-year depression. Poor lamb. But if you like being rich, and loved, and able to do exactly what you want for the rest of your life, it's wise to keep quiet about it. People don't forgive such things.

Mark Knopfler's photograph appears only once on Walking To Philadelphia (Mercury) and even in that he looks as though he'd prefer to be somewhere else. Yet anyone who saw him on Parkinson a few weeks ago will have noticed all the physical manifestations of middle-aged comfort, the rewards of a life lived far from rock star excess. Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms made his fortune, destroyed his repu- tation forever and allowed him to pursue his own musical path, regardless of changes in public taste.

I listened to Brothers In Arms the other day: it's technically brilliant but rather an arid piece of work, easier to admire than to love. His three albums since have been much better. The last Dire Straits album, On Every Street, reintroduced the blues and country influences that had informed the group's earliest work. Knopfler's first solo album, Golden Heart, while over long (74 minutes) and occasionally overwrought (an awful song about Imelda Marcos), included some of his best songwriting yet. Now, a mere four years of large dinners and long holidays later, comes Walking To Philadel- phia, which is more of the same, only bet- ter. It seems odd to say it, but 15 years after his greatest popular success, Knopfler seems finally to be hitting his creative stride.

Maybe it's contentment that is responsi- ble. On Every Street was obviously his way of preparing for a solo career, even if he didn't feel he was ready quite yet. With Golden Heart I suspect he was trying too hard. It's said that the whole album was recorded three times with three different bands in three different countries — crack session players in Nashville, Donal Lunny's fiddle-and-bodhran mob in Dublin, gnarled pub rockers in London. Not one of the London tracks made it to the album, and the Irish songs were the weak link. For Walking To Philadelphia the Nashville crew has become his regular backing band, and they are beginning to sound like it. It's the most relaxed album he has recorded since Dire Straits' first two in the late 1970s.

Since then, though, Knopfler has become one of the great rock texturists, able to imbue simple song structures with surpris- ing depth and subtlety. What at first sounds like the same old thing as usual — the trademark grumble, that swooping guitar sound — grows and grows with each listen. It reminds me of Stephen Bayley's quip about the Millennium Dome and the Lon- don Eye. The Dome, he said, was some- thing complex done very badly; the London Eye was something simple done very well. Knopfler's music also falls into this second category. He is a master craftsman who may just be making the best music of his life.

As, I think, is k.d. lang, the lesbian pin- up whose girlfriend once gave my then-girl- friend the eye in a Thai restaurant in Soho. lang's first albums were strictly in country mode, embodying a torch-song ethic that spoke of misery, gloom, prejudice and, per- haps most damaging of all, secrecy, for her sexual orientation was not something you could talk about freely in rural Canada, let alone good ol' Nashville. Then she came out, lightened up, sold millions of records, fell in love in California and has now recorded a positively joyous pop album called Invincible Summer (Warner Bros).

The reviews have been damning: we liked you better when you were miserable, is the general message. Well, nonsense. The country stylings may have gone, but her inventiveness, her wondrous voice and her instinct to mix and match musical styles to create something wholly new are all still there. So while the rhythms and arrange- ments are bang up to date (trancey, vaguely dancey), many of the songs evoke the inno- cence and straightforwardness of 1960s pop, with a dash of Dusty Springfield thrown in for good measure. Somehow it all manages to be uplifting without being irritating. Buy it today, and make her even happier.