Past the big hits, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms offered a moving exploration on war

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Known now (unfortunately) for its jokey songs — that headband-couture video-hit “Money for Nothing,” the silly baseball-park ditty “Walk of Life” — Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms likely surprises return visitors with its depth of intellect and emotion. Elsewhere, Dire Straits shared what may be some of this band’s most enduringly topical, and deeply resonant music.

The title track, which lacks any of the bravado you might expect, is instead a meditation on suffering — in battle and afterward. “Brothers in Arms” resonates now as much as it ever did, with America sorting through new conflicts in far away places. “We have just one world,” singer/guitarist Mark Knopfler quietly meditates, “but we live in different ones.” Then, there follows one of his most touching and specific cries of lament on guitar.

Importantly, however, Mark Knopfler seems to make a distinction between objecting to the war and supporting the troops: “We are fools,” Knopfler sings, “to make war on our brothers in arms.” It’s a different kind of protest song, without the spitting staccato of Bob Dylan or the fiery bellow of Bruce Springsteen, and a large part of why “Brothers in Arms,” about the English conflict off the Argentinian coast in the Falklands, holds such power even today.

Knopfler later examines “this killing game” in the Vietnam-inspired “Ride Across the River” with atmospheric majesty, allowing his lyrical playing to sit amongst delicate keyboard flourishes and solitary trumpet accompaniment. That lonely sound connects the sadness found in old anger and, in so doing, gives us another way to think about anti-war songs in general, and Vietnam protest songs in particular. Mark Knopfler’s playing is expansive, yet particular. Again stretching out into jazz innovation, he widens these tunes’ perspective — and, similarly, our own.

Even on “Your Latest Trick,” which at first seems like a simpler song about love-gone-wrong, Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits sound nothing like the hits that are so closely associated with Brothers in Arms, released on May 13, 1985. In the end, this song feels — within the larger concept — like another swipe at political leaders with their own wartime agendas. “I don’t know how it happened, it all took place so quick,” Knopfler sings. “All I can do is hand it to you and your latest trick.”

Buy Brothers in Arms, if you must, for those long-ago Top 40 tunes (as well as the approachably pretty “So Far Away”), but stick around for the rest. Tucked away, you’ll find this challenging resiliency, as Mark Knopfler and Co. speak truth to power. It’s a message that still rings true.

Nick’s notes: The Brothers in Arms CD was among the first-ever all-digital recordings. … In 2007, a new version of the title track was released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, with proceeds going to a program that brought British veterans back to the battle site to help them deal with post traumatic stress disorder. … Drummer Omar Hakim, already an important influence in shaping Peter Gabriel’s 1980s sound, appears as a sideman. … If, like me, you have grown weary of the radio hits, never fear: They are bunched in order at the beginning of the album.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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