Music

Mark Knopfler: Privateering

The weight of the album gone and done broke the axles.


Mark Knopfler

Privateering

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2013-09-10
UK Release Date: 2012-09-03
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.