Scaled smaller than 2012's double-album Privateering, Tracker also feels suitably subtle, easing its way into being instead of announcing itself with a thunder. Such understatement is typical of Mark Knopfler, particularly in the third act of his career. When he left Dire Straits behind, he also left behind any semblance of playing for the cheap seats in an arena, but Tracker feels quieter than his new millennial norm. Some of this is due to the undercurrent of reflection tugging at the record's momentum. Knopfler isn't pining for the past but he is looking back, sometimes wistfully, sometimes with a resigned smile, and he appropriately draws upon sounds that he's long loved. Usually, this means some variation of pub rock – the languid ballad "River Towns," the lazy shuffle "Skydiver," the two-chord groove of "Broken Bones" – but this is merely the foundation from which Knopfler threads in a fair amount of olde British folk and other roots digressions. This delicate melancholy complements echoes of older Knopfler songs – significant stretches of the record are reminiscent of the moodier aspects of Brothers in Arms, while "Beryl" has just a bit of the "Sultans of Swing" bounce – and this skillful interweaving of Knopfler's personal past helps give Tracker a nicely gentle resonance.
In 2002, Mark Lanegan was looking to make some changes in how he approached his music – the Screaming Trees had finally collapsed at the end of the '90s, he'd found a new fan base as a frequent guest vocalist with Queens of the Stone Age, and the spare, blues-leaning solo efforts Lanegan cut for Sub Pop were no longer side projects but the first chapters of a new career. As Lanegan was strategizing his next move, he went to Houston, Texas and in five days recorded a dozen songs with a handful of talented local musicians, including guitarist Ian Moore and longtime Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael on harmonica, with Justice Records founder Randall Jamail as producer. While the sessions were meant to be demos for a stack of songs Lanegan had written for Jamail's publishing house, the finished product sounded good enough to be an album, and in 2015 Lanegan finally released the material under the title Houston: Publishing Demos 2002. The jolly irony is that while these are supposed to be demos, in many respects the performances sound more polished and "commercial" than most of Lanegan's early solo efforts, capturing a laid-back but buoyant mood that's informed by country and blues as much as rock, and Lanegan seems comfortable singing with the group, rather than simply laying his vocals over the top.
Those who liked the moodier, more atmospheric material on the last Mark Lanegan Band offering, 2004's Bubblegum, will find much to enjoy on Blues Funeral – an album that has little to do with blues as a musical form. Lanegan has been a busy man since Bubblegum. In the nearly eight ensuing years, he's issued three records with Isobel Campbell, joined Greg Dulli in the Gutter Twins, guested on albums by the Twilight Singers and UNKLE, and was the lead vocalist on most of the last two Soulsavers offerings. Produced by Eleven guitarist Alain Johannes (who also fulfills that role here as well as playing bass, keyboards, and percussion), Blues Funeral finds Lanegan in a musically ambitious place. His voice is deeper, smokier, but more restrained, even on the few straight-up rockers. The grain in his voice is more pronounced, offering a sense of coiled menace on each track, one that is ready at all points to explode the musical confines these songs erect, and to overwhelm them all. To his credit, he never does. While the album is sequenced seamlessly, with varying textures and dynamics, there are standouts.
Mark Lanegan's first solo album, 1990's The Winding Sheet, was a darker, quieter, and more emotionally troubling affair than what fans were accustomed to from his work as lead singer with the Screaming Trees. The follow-up album, 1994 's Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, used The Winding Sheet's sound and style as a starting point, with Lanegan and producer/instrumentalist Mike Johnson constructing resonant but low-key instrumental backdrops for the singer's tales of heartbreak, alcohol, and dashed hopes. While The Winding Sheet often sounded inspired but tentative, like the solo project from a member of an established band, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost speaks with a quiet but steely confidence of an artist emerging with his own distinct vision. The songs are more literate and better realized than on the debut, the arrangements are subtle and supportive (often eschewing electric guitars for keyboards and acoustic instruments), and Lanegan's voice, bathed in bourbon and nicotine, transforms the deep sorrow of the country blues (a clear inspiration for this music) into something new, compelling, and entirely his own. Whiskey for the Holy Ghost made it clear that Mark Lanegan had truly arrived as a solo artist, and it ranks alongside American Music Club's Everclear as one of the best "dark night of the soul" albums of the 1990s.
By now, anyone who has heard one of Mark Lanegan's solo albums knows exactly what the others will sound like – Lanegan's weathered, smoky voice intones tales of quiet desperation over echoing electric guitar arpeggios, folky acoustic guitar work, and the occasional piano, organ, or violin embellishment. This approach has resulted in a compelling body of work, often possessed of remarkable depth, but it's also become something of a stylistic straitjacket over the course of several albums. And that's the only major knock against the otherwise brilliant I'll Take Care of You, Lanegan's fourth solo album, which marks the first time it hasn't taken him four years to deliver a follow-up. Perhaps that's because there's no original material here – I'll Take Care of You applies the drifting, elegiac qualities of its predecessors to a selection of well-chosen, mostly underexposed folk, country, and blues covers. It's a testament to Lanegan's interpretive skill that he's able to use his already well-established style so effectively yet again, as most of these versions range from stunning to merely excellent.