Privateering/ Mark Knopfler
Universal Music/ Rs 395 (double-CD)
THOUGH he’s best known as frontman of the brilliant rock band Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler has released a string of commendable solo albums during the past 16 years, exploring the rootsier side of his music personality. In contrast to the Dire Straits brand of guitar rock, he has used a lot of Celtic and country influences, charmingly mellowing down his tunes.
Knopfler’s latest solo effort ‘Privateering’, released last month, sees him explore these genres once again, but what’s really evident is his increasing fondness for and dependence on the blues. Add to that a dash of old-school jazz and southern American rock, and what we have is a set that simply grows on each listening.
Clearly, ‘Privateering’ showcases Knopfler’s phenomenal talent as a singer and songwriter. But what’s really creditable is that the Britisher has released a double album at a time when the trend is not only considered passé, but risky too. It’s difficult to write 20 good songs at a stretch, but he manages that quite smoothly and stylishly.
Most numbers talk of working class heroes like van drivers, farmers, daily wagers or sailors. Lines like “What made you think there’d be a living in sheep; Eat, work, eat, work, sleep” and “You don’t ask questions when there’s nothing in the bank; Got to feed the kids and put the diesel in the tank” make the songs more accessible and realistic.
The real difference, however, lies in the smoothness of the sound and in the quality of singing. Knopfler’s magnificent guitar ― acoustic, electric or slide ― appears in short but swift bursts, unlike his Dire Straits work, where the instrument dominated the songs with lengthy trademark solos. Here, one also finds a strong contribution from the piano, organ, keyboards, violin, accordion, whistles, harmonica, mandolin, pedal steel, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and even the Uillean pipes and stringed rarities like the bouzouki , cittern and tipple, besides the standard bass-and-drum rhythm section.
While the compositions are versatile and charming, Knopfler’s crystal-clear, honey-rich and ocean-deep voice is in super form here, as he varies his delivery according to the song’s style. From the album’s very first line “Hunted down, I came upon, a piece of ferns and grass,” it’s vocal magic all the way.
Curiously, Knopfler mixes up genres randomly, instead of having all the blues material and all the country together. He starts with a folk mood on ‘Redbud tree’, and gets into a Celtic ambience using whistles and Uilllean pipes on ‘Haul Away’. Then, he switches to the blues on ‘Don’t Forget Your Hat’, a song that reminds you of Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, but embellished by marvellous piano, harmonica and slide guitar.
After that, it’s all mix and match. The title track is a very Scottish folk tune, with a stunning acoustic guitar line. ‘Miss You Blues’ is anything but the blues ― it’s a folksy take on the traditional song’ Deep Blue Sea’. For a more Dire Straits flavour, ‘Corned Beef City’ boasts of a sizzling guitar backdrop and words that talk of daily struggle.
‘Go Love’ gets into a sad farewell mode, and ‘Hot Or What’ gets back into blues territory, with some jazz-laced piano and horns. The first disc concludes with ‘Yon Two Crows’, a Celtic tune with strong violins, and the pleasant country-folk piece ‘Seattle’, which has a soothing guitar-violin interaction.
If you thought the quality would drop on Disc 2, don’t worry, be happy. The opening piece ‘Kingdom of Gold’ is a Celtic charmer, with Knopfler’s voice shining on the powerful lines “His axes and armour will conquer these devils, The turbulent raiders will falter and fall; Their leaders be taken, their camps burned and levelled, They’ll hang in the wind from his citadel walls.”
‘Got To Have Something’ and ‘I Used to Could’ have a distinct JJ Cale stomp, and ‘Gator Blood’ moves swiftly in the Eric Clapton ‘Lay Down Sally’ mould, with a crackling slide guitar wail. For variety, the beautiful jazz-meets-Celtic, trumpet-laced ‘Radio City Serenade’ boasts of smart lines like “Every wounded soldier needs a lady with a light, to help him through the night” and “Oh you are so pretty my beautiful Rockette; You’ve got my arms and the crosstown horns; Going on ― we’ve got it going on.”
The album slows down with the rustic and bluesy ‘Bluebird’, which has an intricate guitar climax, and the melancholic ‘Dream of the Drowned Submariner’, which has the lines “Your hair is a strawflower that sings in the sun, my darling, my beautiful daughter; So went the dream of the drowned submariner, cast away on the water.”
‘Blood and Water’ gets into a country mode, and ‘Today’s Okay’ gets into southern blues, with Knopfler paying tribute to musical legends with the lines “Well, we like to have some friends around; Do the twist to Ray Charles and James Brown.” The album concludes with the foot-stomping sing-along folk-blues ‘After the Beanstalk’, which makes excellent use of harmonica, mandolin and piano, and has fun lines like “A hen can lay a golden egg but she still can’t sing; Well, the hen’s alright but the harp is everything.”
The biggest plus point of ‘Privateering’ is its total consistency ― something that characterised his debut solo album ‘Golden Heart’, but which didn’t figure in many other solo efforts despite individually outstanding songs. Though this is a double album, there isn’t a weak moment, and each time you hear each song, you discover something new. It’s a clear indication of Knopfler’s genius when it comes to songwriting. In every way, ‘Privateering’ is perfect hearing.
RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic