The Van's Not Too Strong
Sometime after Dire Straits hit the big time, Mark Knopfler began to think smaller. Knopfler started his outfit as a “pub rock” quartet with clean-toned finger-picked electric guitars and a minor hit, “Sultans of Swing”. In less than ten years time, a hit album would change all of that. Brothers in Arms spawned two enormously successful singles as the band were packing in stadiums from miles around. It’s a dizzying thing to have happen to you if you’re a rootsy guy trying to hang on to the values you learned while growing up in a working class family in northern England. So while “Money For Nothing” and “Walk of Life” were still saturating the airwaves, Knopfler was dialing down with his outside projects which included a laid-back album with the Notting Hillbillies, trading licks with Chet Atkins and recording soundtrack music—music designed for background. Not exactly a bucket list for a rock ‘n’ roll frontman, but then again, Knopfler never was that kind of guy.
By the time Dire Straits regrouped to make On Every Street, listeners heard some of Knopfler’s newfound sense of calm trickle into the band’s sound. Tepid reviews followed and Mark Knopfler disbanded Dire Straits after a massive world tour. Since then, Knopfler’s career has been quiet and steady, churning out albums, soundtracks and collaborations on a regular basis. He’s remained a prolific songwriter through it all with his skills never hitting a noticeable slump. So the drop of a double album shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who has followed Knopfler this far. After all, 2004’s Shangri-La had b-sides to spare and 2009’s Get Lucky can be found with five additional songs. A double album? No problem, says Mark Knopfler. The size of the package may increase, but he continues to think small.
And just like the Dire Straits swansong On Every Street, the double album Privateering has been foreshadowed by a few releases in Knopfler’s recent past. Kill to Get Crimson explored his English waltzy side while its follow-up Get Lucky started off with a Celtic jig followed by jaunty blues two tracks later. “You Can’t Beat the House” is the one track on Get Lucky that I was prone to skip over, not because I have anything against the blues, I just thought that Knopfler’s take on it was a little clunky at best. Privateering, which is finally being released in the U.S. after being only available as an import for an entire year (in this digital age, what’s the point of that?), features twenty songs that largely focus on Gaelic sounds and low-down blues. There are plenty of tracks that don’t fit either of those labels, but if you were to pin down the album’s two defining characteristics, it would be those. Whatever style he tackles, it still sounds like Mark Knopfler. That voice and that guitar sound will never be mistaken for anyone else. As Knopfler told a guitar magazine around the time of The Ragpicker’s Dream‘s release, he admitted “I’m a guitar teacher’s worst nightmare”, since his style has remained “the same old hodgepodge”.
The likes of “You Can’t Beat the House” comes back to haunt me in “Hot or What”, a rhetorical phrase that a gambler uses to describe his winning streak; “am I hot or what?”. Knopfler talks through both verses and choruses, relying on the band’s limp Delta romp for the sole musical context. Knopfler’s forced smug laughter, meant to mimic this smug son of a bitch, makes it even more ridiculous. Even if he would have come up with a melody for it all, it still wouldn’t have been saved. “Today Is Okay” is even worse. Judging by just the chorus, it appears to be the opposite of “Hot or What”; “Maybe I was born on a bad luck day / Born under a bad sign / But today is okay / Today’s just fine.” Okay, but why does our downtrodden friend clinch a verse with “After lunch I’ll maybe take a nap / I like a nap before a scrap”. Next he’s at the table with his lady, asking for peas, steak and potatoes. I’ll stop there. “Don’t Forget Your Hat”, “Got to Have Something”, “I Used to Could” and to a lesser extend “Gator Blood” clog the album with the same crippled blues that plagues “Hot or What” and “Today Is Okay”. These songs weren’t written so much as they were professionally recorded before Knopfler decided not to finish writing them. Kim Wilson’s honking harmonica is mixed into the whole thing like an irritant rather than an enhancer. At least “Bluebird” and “After the Beanstalk” change up the tempo of this template, but like their speedier brethren, they stifle Privateering‘s momentum. Honestly, at 5:13, “Don’t Forget Your Hat” feels much longer every time I hear it.
The Celtic angle suffers from a generic phone-in, though it’s mercifully just one song. “Kingdom of Gold”, which kicks off the second half, sounds like one of those rudimentary flute melodies that comes out of the speakers of a CD rack in a shop that sells healing stones. All that’s missing is the babbling brook. Too bad, because the lyrics really can paint a picture; “When the rim of the sun sends an arrow of silver / He prays to the gods of the bought and the sold”. Knopfler, together with accordionist Phil Cunningham, whistler/piper Mike McGoldrick and fiddler/cittern player John McCusker, can fortunately pull off better forms of English folk than that such as on the haunting opener “Red Bud Tree”, the countryside stroll of “Haul Away”, the soft simmer of “Go, Love” and the immaculate perfection of “Dream of the Drowned Submariner”, an acoustic ballad with just the right amount of echo added to Knopfler’s guitar and voice—tucked away towards the end of the second disc! It’s hard to believe these songs, especially “Dream of the Drowned Submariner”, all come from the same album as all of those creaky, wheezy blues numbers.
There’s still plenty of noteworthy stuff I haven’t gotten to, like the toe-tapping “Corn Beef City”, some melodic labor bitching in “Yon Two Crows” (“I can still work for two men / And drink for three”), and the appropriation of “Deep Blue Sea” to give “Miss You Blues” a melody. But one thing worth mentioning is the title track—but not because it’s great. At 6:18, it revisits certain points a little too often. What’s funny is the juxtaposition of the lyrics against the album’s cover art. “Come with me to Barbary we’ll ply there up and down / Not exactly in the service of the crown.” A gutsy bunch of sailors, right? They want “to lay with pretty women and drink Madeira wine”. But look at the van on the cover there. At least one wheel is missing. There are more tires on the ground than on the van. And that trash fire is probably generating more energy than that poor rust bucket’s engine.
Is Mark Knopfler saying this swashbuckling adventure is over before it began? A common complaint about double albums is that they always come in need of trimming. As for me, I’ve always liked double albums. No concept needed, just give me lots of good songs. Privateering seemed like a sure bet since Mark Knopfler has been writing songs so consistently well lately. In its weakest moments, some songs on Privateering will favor the loose jam, using it as an excuse for Knopfler to shift around his first-person narratives. At the same time, this album can be just as incredibly sweet and tuneful as anything he’s done before. Privateering is a textbook example of a mixed bag—frustrating. The quantitative weight of the album gone and done broke the axles. I really hate to say this, but next time he’ll just have to lighten the load.